Monday, April 30, 2012

I Don't Like Spiders and Snakes

Actually, I do like snakes, quite a long as they're not venomous and looking to lay their teeth against me. Today, I spent a pleasant afternoon and early evening at Cedarock Park, near Burlington, hunting up a cache or two, and as I was making my egress through the woods, I saw this long, black tail sticking out from behind a nearby tree. "A-ha," I say. "I have found me a snake." Sure enough, it's a big black racer, not an inch shy of six feet, laid out as comfy as you please, giving me the eyeball. Turns out, snake is the friendliest fellow I've ever seen out in the wild, for he scoots right on up to me — absolutely fearless but not even a little aggressive — lays right up against my shoe, and lets me rub him on his back just a bit before continuing on his way. Important snake business, and all. I did enjoy making his acquaintance, for he's completely harmless and quite beneficial for the environment. Black racers are very common around here, but most of the time, they're anxious to get out of your way. Chances are, this one had just finished his elevenses and was feeling mellow.

Less  welcome was the umpteenth black widow I've run into ever since the weather turned warm. I've seen more this season than I think I've ever seen; they're everywhere, even hanging around the front yard (I think they're waiting for the mailman to bring Netflix). All well and good as long as you don't inadvertently pick one up — kind of like I did a while back on a caching expedition. Fortunately, as a rule, black widows would rather play possum than put the bite on you. Don't use them as yo-yos.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Return to Collinwood

Since Dark Shadows alumnus Kathryn Leigh Scott formed Pomegranate Press in 1986, it has been known for producing superior quality volumes devoted to Dark Shadows, including My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows, The Dark Shadows Almanac, The Dark Shadows Movie Book, Dark Shadows Resurrected, and more. Their latest release, Dark Shadows: Return to Collinwood, by Kathryn Leigh Scott and Jim Pierson, rates among the best of these, featuring a wealth of historical background, personal narratives, and photographs, ranging from the series' origin in 1966 to the Tim Burton theatrical film, due for release next month. Some of the contents are reprints from earlier Pomegranate Press titles, such as My Scrapbook Memories of Dark Shadows, but that doesn't lessen the value of having the older material presented with the new, all under one roof, so to speak.

The book opens with a brief foreword by Jonathan Frid, who passed away only a short couple of weeks ago (see "Our Little Life Is Rounded With a Sleep," April 19). Immediately following is a timeline titled "Five Decades of Dark Shadows," which touches on the highlights of the franchise from its beginning to the present. In "Dark Shadows Reincarnated," Jim Pierson provides a brief overview of the upcoming Tim Burton Dark Shadows, including the characters, cast, and several photographs. Kathryn and Lara Parker follow up with intriguing personal chronicles of their journeys to England to appear in the film in cameo roles, along with fellow Dark Shadows series actors Jonathan Frid and David Selby. From these accounts, one can clearly see that, for Jonathan, this venture is a serious personal struggle, both physically and mentally. It's very sad that he will not have the chance to see the result of his final journey into the shadows, as it were. As for David, Kathryn, and Lara, one definitely gets a sense of their excitement on their journey, and I think they would agree it's a somewhat amusing irony for them to be the "outsiders" on the Dark Shadows set.

"Backstage Memories" offers a veritable catalog of Kathryn's personal reminiscences of her life as a Dark Shadows actress, illustrated with loads of photographs, some well-known stock pics, some from her personal collection. I enjoy the fact that, even though much of the actors' day-to-day experiences on the set are prosaic, her writing retains much of the youthful excitement in which she must have been caught up at the time. Lara provides an appropriate companion piece, "Angelique Looks Back," in which she reveals how deeply she delved into Angelique's character during the show's run and how, over time, through her own novels, she has developed a whole new understanding as well as literary portrayal of the character.

One of my favorite sections of the book, though brief, is "The Mansion on the Hill," which provides a more than tantalizing glimpse of Seaview Terrace, the mansion in Newport, Rhode Island, that stood in for Collinwood — at least for exterior scenes. While I've visited Lyndhurst, the gothic mansion in Tarrytown, New York, which was used as Collinwood in House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, many times and become quite familiar with its layout, grounds, and history, I've never had the opportunity to visit Seaview. To my chagrin, for several years during the 80s, I regularly attended Necon, in Bristol, RI, which is just a stone's throw from Newport. Had I known at the time I was so near the old "mansion on the hill," I would have buzzed down there in a heartbeat. Alas for me. I'm particularly fond of the photos of the house's interior in this section of the book, since very few interior shots ever found their way into the TV series.

Jim Pierson provides overviews of the 1991 NBC-TV Dark Shadows revival series (which is covered in far more detail in Pomegranate Press's Dark Shadows Resurrected) as well as WB's aborted 2004 attempt at bringing back the series. Despite it's myriad shortfalls, I've always had a great fondness for the 1991 series — it wasn't the original, of course, but it wasn't intended to be — but I've never seen the pilot for the 2004 version, which starred Alec Newman as Barnabas (who has now played Barnabas on Big Finish's audio drama series), Marley Shelton as Victoria Winters, and Ivana Milicevic as Angelique. By all accounts, I really didn't miss much, and the description of the pilot here certainly doesn't peak my interest much. For curiosity's sake, I wouldn't mind watching it, but it's hardly one of those burning desires I absolutely must fulfill before shuffling off this mortal coil.

Rounding out the volume is a wonderfully in-depth account of the making of House of Dark Shadows and Night of Dark Shadows, both of which I quite adore to this day. To me personally, so much of what makes these movies so memorable, apart from the characters themselves, is the excellent use of Lyndhurst as Collinwood — though, I must admit, as a kid, it was disconcerting to see a "different" place playing home to the Collins family on the big screen. In more recent years, having spent a fair amount of time at the Lyndhurst estate, I've marveled at how expertly Dan Curtis and crew used it (as well as the other locations) to heighten the visual appeal of both films. It's a real treat to have the background story, along with plenty of on-site photographs, included in this book.

As a long-time Dark Shadows fan and occasional contributor to the series as a writer, I love finding gems like Return to Collinwood, which — despite my more-than-passing familiarity with the series, its creators, and its cast members — manages to shine new light on what many might consider well-trodden ground. I also appreciate the excellent production of the book itself: a sturdy softcover with perfectly sized typesetting and excellent photo reproduction. Easily one of my many favorites from Pomegranate.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Fairy Stones, Fairy Trees, and Fried Chicken

There's not a geocache up in that tree, but I think there oughta be. I half-suspect it's full of fairies, though....

It's been a good while since I visited Mum in Martinsville, so I got up bright and early and hit the road. First order of business: hit Fairy Stone Park, in Patrick County, and go after the one cache in the area I haven't yet claimed (except for a couple on islands in Philpott Lake that require boats to reach). Soon as I arrived at the park, I grabbed GPS and hiking pole and started for the trail... only to hear a very mean man growling at me that no geocaching is allowed at Fairy Stone. But I know better, and that voice belongs to none other than Tim "Medicine Turtle" Collins, who is at the park involved in a Boy Scout outing for Earth Day weekend. We traded caching stories for a while, and then it was off on the hunt. The cache itself was rather a quickie, but I passed the tree you see pictured, and all kinds of evil caching ideas began going through my head. Caches in Virginia State Parks require special permits, though, so that ever-so-tempting hole in the tree—about 30 feet up—is not a realistic hiding place, even if I were capable of such devious feats.

Of course, I know plenty of twisted geniuses who are....

Ever since before I was a zygote, there's been this place in Koehler, just outside of Martinsville, known for its "Chicken in a Basket." Garfield's, it's called, and for lunch I finally went in the place for the first time. The fried chicken knocked me on my hindquarters it was so flippin' good. It will not be 52+ years before I go back there, I can tell you.

Once ensconced at Mum's, after some much-needed visiting, I set to work on finishing up my latest tale, "Asylum." I got that done this evening, and it's been sent to the editor. It's 4,800 pretty good words, except for some really awful ones. Hope the editor approves even of those.

Friday, April 20, 2012

Ecstasy of the Gold

 Looky looky! The latest issue of Lovecraft eZine is on the loose, featuring my story, "Ecstasy of the Gold." It's a futuristic tale of intrigue, with subtle ties to a few of my other works of Lovecraftian fiction. The story is quite new, and this is its first publication.

Here's an excerpt, just to warp your mind a little....


An iron rail fence surrounded a well of pure blackness. He shoved the gate open, which made a sound like his old uncle drawing his last breath. Nothing to see within. A rustle of leaves and brush. His tecmate was all kinds of fouled here; just a gyrating compass needle in his field of vision that made him dizzy. But he knew was close.

Something touched his shoulder, and he spun wildly. A pair of luminous eyes was glaring at him, inches from his—wide and way too bright.

Jesus God.

“What?” he growled, switching on his most menacing voice. “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

“Dollars,” came a deep voice, so full of bass he felt the vibrations. “You’re looking for dollars.” The voice rose and became sharper, mimicking the sound of his brain voice. “‘Locate dollars.’”

Was this character his target? He couldn’t make out any features in the darkness, nothing beyond the horrible gleaming eyes. Typical Fusion accent. Somehow, the man knew about him, his quest.

He knew.

Something in his field of vision moved, and he realized the figure had lifted an arm to point into the darkness. As his eyes adjusted, he realized the man was big—very big—and wearing fine clothes. Stylish sweater, a scarf, and a fedora. Nothing beneath the brim but those luminous eyes.

As he gazed after the pointing finger, he saw something glittering in the murky, ambient light from the street. Something big and gnarled-looking, gleaming oddly in the darkness. Unable to help himself he took a few steps toward it.

It was gold.

It was gold.

Nothing else looked like that.


His failing tecmate refused to respond but for a brief flicker, which highlighted the shape long enough for his eyes to absorb the sight of it.

Twelve feet tall, it had to be. Stylized, even abstract. A caricature of a human—maybe—but with an oversized, grotesque head, with strange, tendril-like protrusions where the face should be; a pair of broad fins, or wings maybe, running lengthwise down the back of its elongated torso. All gold, its burnished surfaces reflecting the distant, hazy city lights. It looked alive.


The rest of the tale is available at Lovecraft eZine, and it's absolutely free. As a bonus, you can get an audio file of the tale, read by Justin Zimmer.

The complete table of contents for issue #13 is below. Do check it out!

Ecstasy of the Gold
by Stephen Mark Rainey

Scale Hall
by Simon Kurt Unsworth

The Dog Who Wished He’d Never Heard of Lovecraft
by Anna Tambour

The Ourorboros Apocrypha
by Jayaprakash Satyamurthy

Over the Hills
by Victor Takac

This Inscrutable Light: A Response to Thomas Ligotti’s
The Conspiracy Against the Human Race”

an essay by Brandon H. Bell

Lovecraftian Art
Eric Lofgren & Jonny Christopher Ledford
Co-editor: A.J. French

Kindle version: Kenneth W. Cain
Issue cover: Ronnie Tucker (text: Stjepan Lukac)
Story illustrations: Nick Gucker, Robert Elrod, Galen Dara, Steve Santiago
Story readers: Justin Zimmer, Morgan Scorpion, Bruce L. Priddy, David Binks
Publisher & Editor: Mike Davis

Visit Lovecraft eZine here.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Our Little Life Is Rounded With a Sleep

R.I.P. Jonathan Frid

I so fondly recall being at my grandparents' house in Georgia back in 1966, on the day the first episode of Dark Shadows aired, and finding myself enamored with the show's eerie atmosphere and its characters, who made me feel as if I knew them right from the get-go. I watched the first few episodes, and then it was time to go back home to Virginia. But phooey! The wretched local ABC affiliate didn't carry Dark Shadows! To watch the show in Martinsville, you had to have cable, and in those days, that was a pretty rare thing. I did, however, know a couple of kids whose families had sprung for this modern technology thing, and so, as often as possible, I'd invite myself over to their places so we could watch us some Dark Shadows. It was frustrating to be able to view it only sporadically, but it also heightened the excitement, enhanced the show's already powerful, alluring mystique. It was, to this young horror-writer-to-be, absolutely magical.

Then one day there was a big snowstorm, and we got out of school early. My mom wasn't home to pick me up, so I went home with my friend Frank, and I got permission to stay over for the night. Well, that afternoon, we sat down to watch Dark Shadows, and...lo and behold...there he was: Barnabas Collins, vampire. I had heard about him, seen photographs of him, but lord, I'd never actually witnessed him in action, and now here he was...with fangs and everything! That night I lay awake in an unfamiliar room, in total darkness, for I don't know how many hours, unable to go to sleep—both from petrifying fear and pure jubilation. It was one long night, for sure, but in its way quite wonderful.

What a memorable introduction to Jonathan Frid.

A couple of years later, my folks finally sprang for cable, and I could watch Dark Shadows every afternoon in my very own house. I swear I lived and breathed Dark Shadows. Many evenings, I'd look out the window at sunset and imagine seeing Barnabas Collins standing in the shadows, watching me. I was terrified of him, yet at the same time, I sensed a certain kindness in him, and I figured if I actually did encounter him, I might not end up dead.

If you're here, you're no doubt aware that Jonathan Frid passed away a few days ago, of natural causes, in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario. He was 87 years old and in visibly failing health. I understand he dreaded a long, lingering demise, as his mother had suffered, and, mercifully, he simply went to sleep and did not wake up again. His last film appearance will be in the new Tim Burton Dark Shadows film, and while I have my doubts that this movie is going to be anything other than a bomb, I actually do look forward to seeing it, as much as anything to watch Jonathan and the other original series cast members—David Selby, Lara Parker, and Kathryn Leigh Scott—in cameo roles. I recently picked up Pomegranate Press's Return to Collinwood (which I'll soon be reviewing), and it features blow-by-blow chronicles by Lara and Kathryn of their experiences in England as they went forth to appear the film. I could tell from their accounts that Jonathan was faltering, both physically and mentally, and it actually proved painful for me to imagine the rigors of his last journey into the world of Dark Shadows.

I did have the pleasure of meeting Jonathan numerous times over the years. The first was at a convention in Atlanta, GA, back in the late 80s or early 90s, where he performed his one-man dramatic act titled Fools and Fiends. In it, he regaled the audience with numerous personal anecdotes and read stories by Shakespeare, Ambrose Bierce, and Stephen King. A true Shakespearean actor, he was always most at home on the stage. He was the first and last human being for whom I've ever stood in an autograph line. That first time, to him, I'm sure I was just another gushing fan, but he very graciously accepted the copy of Deathrealm I offered him and asked if it contained my contact information in case he read something in it he wanted to perform. I knew the likelihood of such an event, of course, but just his asking about sent me over into fanboy heaven. One year, he was appearing in Salem, VA. My wife had just had major surgery, but that wasn't sufficient to stop me taking my daughter and hitting the road to go see him. I was relieved—as I'm sure she was—to come back and find she wasn't dead but at least she didn't begrudge us the experience. The following year, she was able to meet him herself when he came to High Point, NC.

In later years, by the time I actually became involved as a writer in the Dark Shadows franchise, he had retired (and alas, he never did perform any works out of Deathrealm). I so vividly remember writing my first scene with Barnabas in Dark Shadows: Dreams of the Dark (HarperCollins, 1999), which I co-wrote with Elizabeth Massie, and suddenly feeling overcome by the same excitement as when I was watching Dark Shadows as a ten-year-old. I pulled an all-nighter and then some to get that chapter done. I'm pretty certain that was my all-time favorite writing experience.

I can't claim to have known Jonathan Frid closely, certainly not to the extent that many of my own acquaintances in the very sizable Dark Shadows community have. Still, I did have those opportunities to see him as him, not just as a character, for which I feel most grateful. I do know he had very high personal and professional standards, sometimes to the point of being what many might perceive as just persnickety. In later years, he enjoyed referring to himself as an old curmudgeon. That's as maybe. In him, I also saw a very warm and witty man who did his best to live life on his own terms.

While most people, myself included, will always see Jonathan Frid as Barnabas Collins, I will also remember him as a man of many talents, an actor sometimes frustrated with having been defined a by role he played for less than five years, and a true gentleman. I know there are many whose lives were changed by him, even if as a dark and tormented character in a television melodrama.

Mine was certainly changed and I believe made richer by the fact he lived and performed.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Gamera Is Super Bad

Gamera: The Super Monster (Uchu Kaiju Gamera, 1980)

DVD Description: Released by Shout! Factory, (2011; double-billed with Gamera vs. Zigra); Japanese version with subtitles; Sandy Frank English dub; promo materials

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Starring Koichi Maeda, Mach Fumiake, Yaeko Kojima, Yoko Komatsu, Keiko Kudo, Toshie Takada

Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

A big old starship — which looks so much like an Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars that you just know it can't be a friendly thing — comes round the earth and deposits a reasonably hot alien woman named Giruge (Keiko Kudo) in the middle of Japan. She is, in a fact, a minion of the evil space marauder Zanon and has come to eliminate three goody-goody space women named Kilara (Mach Fumiake), Marsha (Yaeko Kojima), and Mitan (Yoko Komatsu) — who, for whatever reason, have sent the bad folk into a tizzy. Giruge, alas, continually finds herself stymied because the space women, being ever-so clever, have disguised themselves as normal Earthlings. (When they wish to transform into their true space-woman forms, they tweak their earlobes and wave their arms a few times — resulting in their outfits changing into figure-hugging leotards with capes.) Meantime, Kilara (looking more like Akira Takarada than he does) befriends a terminally cheerful little brat named Keiichi, who... much like some of his juvenile predecessors... is overly fond of turtles. After a while, with Giruge's attempts to quash her quarry going so poorly, Zanon figures it's time to bring on some big monsters.

Gyaos! Zigra! Jiger! Barugon! Viras! Guiron! They all appear, in turn, and do battle with Gamera, who, in turn, dispatches them in familiar fashion...familiar, at least, if you've seen their original appearances because... yes, gracious... they're all stock footage. Every bit of them. Zanon even manages to take control of Gamera (if only briefly) and unleash him to do his part in the urban devastation, via footage from the original Gamera and Gamera vs. Barugon. Eventually, though, touched by Keiichi's devotion to Gamera, Giruge defies her master and sides with the Earthlings, prompting a peeved Zanon to shoot her with a laser cannon from outer space. In the end, Gamera flies into space after Zanon's ship and ends it all with a terrific bang. Kilara informs Keiichi that Gamera has sacrificed his life to save the earth, but tears are not to be shed. We end the film with the space women taking Keiichi on a flying tour of Shinjuku, and we've never seen him happier.

I picked up this Shout! Factory double-feature DVD about a year ago, when it was first released, but I had avoided inserting Gamera: The Super Monster into the player until this evening. The first and only time I had seen it was on television in 1986, and my sole impression of the experience was that it was fairly painful. Gadzooks and forsooth! There's not much way around saying the movie is both odder than hell and terribly tedious; four cups of coffee it took to keep me from nodding off.

Over the course of its run during the 60s and 70s, the Gamera series had devolved into a property aimed solely at children, with ever-diminishing budgets and box-office returns. Daiei Studios had filed for bankruptcy in 1971, and while it reorganized during the 70s, its output was anemic to say the least. The brain trust at Daiei evidently hoped that Gamera: The Super Monster might successfully relaunch the Gamera franchise, but if anything, it only kicked an already moribund animal.

Among the many subtle and not-so-subtle peculiarities of this film, about halfway through it, we have an exciting bedtime scene, in which we learn that young Keiichi is a fan not only of turtles but of the animated Space Cruiser Yamato series, for he takes copies of both an illustrated Yamato book and a Gamera book to bed with him. Next thing you know, he's dreaming, and we are treated to a scene from Yamato, complete with the distinctive theme by Hiroshi Miyagawa, only to have Gamera fly into view and watch the cartoon space battleship go sailing by. During Gamera's attack on the city, he knocks over a stand-up poster display, upon which we see a painting of a distinctly familiar Toho monster and the title (in Japanese), Farewell, Godzilla. Since, in 1975, Godzilla had entered what was to be a decade-long retirement, perhaps this was Daiei's way of saying, "Hey, Gamera's still around but you're not," though, clearly, Godzilla was still destined for a longer and far more profitable film career.

Like several other substandard daikaiju films, I own Gamera: The Super Monster because it is a daikaiju film, and there are certain properties for which I'm a reluctant completist — Gamera being one of them. Doesn't mean I have to like it; no, not much.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Let's Do the Time Warp Again
It's just a jump to the left!

Actually, the tall dude is Andrew Young—former mayor of Atlanta, congressman, U.N. ambassador, and civil rights activist—towering over ol' Rodan, in downtown Atlanta; photo taken by Brugger on Good Friday morning.

On Thursday, the nice lady and I packed up and headed south to north Georgia — some of my most favoritest old stomping grounds from back in the 20th century. It's been quite a few years since I've been down that way, and I gotta tell you, we crammed a major mess of activity into a short few days. For a while, though, I wasn't sure we were going to make it; Thursday afternoon, Charlotte and its environs, for about a 20-mile radius, had woven itself into an absolutely impenetrable wall of traffic. Gaaah! However, once past this infernal mess, I rediscovered my good spirits, and by the time we hit the Georgia state line, I was feeling positively exuberant. Finding a few fun caches en route certainly helped.

It was Friday morning that we began our venture in earnest. From our meager lodgings in the suburbs, we headed for downtown Atlanta and took to wandering surroundings that, quite a few years ago, were about as familiar to me as my own backyard. Things have changed a bit, but... well... I did have more hair back then. First order of business: lunch at the Sundial restaurant, on the 73rd floor of the Westin Peachtree Plaza hotel, which I hadn't visited since 1981. The restaurant revolves at roughly one revolution per hour, offering a spectacular view of Atlanta and beyond. Brugger ordered pecan-crusted chicken, and I had a spicy barbecue short rib burger: an absolutely heavenly 8 ozzies of angus beef, braised short rib meat, white cheddar cheese, horseradish aïoli, fried onion, lettuce, and tomato, with a passel of kick-ass french fries. Yeah. While in the neighborhood, we wandered around Centennial Olympic Park, chuckled at the insanely crowded World of Coke (could've used some bourbon), and visited the historic Oakland Cemetery.

Among the most personally meaningful experiences (there were many this trip) was heading down to Hapeville, near Hartsfield International Airport. When I was a kid, my dad's parents had lived there, very close to the airport itself. I've only been back that way one time as an adult, and even that was quite a few years ago. Happily, the town itself really hasn't changed much, and a number of the old landmarks, such as the prominent rail line running through the center of town, remained very familiar to me. By all accounts, the house that my grandparents lived in had been demolished when the airport expanded in the mid 1960s. But... much to my surprise... as Brugger and I were exploring (and caching) in the old neighborhood, I came upon a house that so closely matched my memory of my grandparents' place that I am not entirely convinced it wasn't the same place. In all likelihood, it's simply a house of similar design, in very close proximity to the site where my grandparents once lived. Still, upon finding it, I felt as if I were standing face-to-face with a beautiful ghost from my past...a place of deep personal meaning that I never expected to see again in this life...and I could not help but find my emotions just about to boil over. It was one of many experiences over the weekend in which my past and present collided with unprecedented intensity. In the late 1960s, after Hapeville, my grandparents moved to another house on the south side of Atlanta, and that house does still exist. Brugger and I drove by it so I might pay my respects. It was a pleasant sidetrip, though it was sad to see how badly that neighborhood has decayed over the years.

For dinner, we followed the advice of some local friends and hit the Pacific Rim Bistro on Peachtree Center Ave. Fine advice it was; the sushi and Vietnamese spring rolls about sent us swooning and hollering, not necessarily in that order.

Come Friday, we departed Altanta and wound our way into the mountains of north Georgia to the town of Helen—a replica of a quaint Bavarian village, once fairly authentic, now a tourist's paradise, replete with shops, restaurants, taverns, and a handful of geocaches. We had a simple bratwurst lunch at a little restaurant called Hofers, and then drove to Anna Ruby Falls, a spectacular cascade in the Chattahoochee National Forest—two adjoining creeks plunging over 150 ft. and 50 ft. respectively to form a single stream (Smith Creek). I'd been to the falls sometime in my teenage years, and I recall enjoying the visit; this time around, I loved the hike to the falls but for the overabundance of muggles — so many that they created numerous pockets of all-but-unbreakable gridlock on the mountain trail. My misanthropic nature got quite the healthy workout here, though mostly it was Brugger getting to hear about it rather than me summoning up murderous fire demons from the eighth dimension... despite the fact the latter would have been immensely more gratifying. A spot of wine helped, as we finished up with a visit to Habersham Winery, a scenic little vineyard just outside Helen.

Perhaps my favorite experience of the trip was kicking around Gainesville, where my mom grew up, and where I spent a considerable amount of my childhood, mostly for summer vacations and Christmases. On my last visit, back in 2007, I had been distressed to see my grandparents' old house falling into disrepair, but this time, I found it renovated, occupied, and in remarkably good shape. It still feels a little weird not to be able to just walk in and make myself at home there, but I'm glad to see the place clearly in good hands.

One of our favorite dining experiences of the weekend was at a little restaurant on the square in Gainesville called Recess, which occupies a space right next to what used to be a newsstand that my brother and I loved visiting back in the day. I can't count how many books still on my bookshelves originally came from there, but it was always exciting to go in and find new Dark Shadows releases — you know, the old Paperback Library editions by Marilyn (Dan) Ross in the late 1960s — or to pick up the latest issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland or The Monster Times. (I am not older than Moses, so STFU.) Anyway, it was a balmy evening, and they have outdoor seating at Recess, so Brugger and I had ourselves a delicious, intimate dinner overlooking the square in downtown Gainesville.

Yesterday morning, I woke up at the crack of dawn and, rather than lie there trying to sleep when I could not, I went out caching. Roaming around so many familiar old places hunting geocaches proved beyond therapeutic. Most exciting was finding a cache just behind my grandparents' old place — in the remains (a stone chimney) of an ancient cabin in the woods that, as kids, my brother and I were known to play in. The thing I remember most about going into that cabin was finding a huge, wooden bureau with the word "Ivanhoe" engraved on it. (I described just such a scene in my story, "The Grey House," circa 1985.) Once the nice lady got up and going, we had ourselves a picnic at Ivey Terrace Park, a scenic little natural area that, again, my brother and I had frequented in our slightly checkered pasts. As we were finishing up our lunch, a good-sized family group came walking by, and the gentleman, slightly older than me, noticed my geocaching cap. Turns out he was a cacher himself, and he had hidden a cache — which I had just found — called "Old Bell's Mill" (GC2YMJ1) at the site of my mom's family's old grist mill near Lake Lanier, just outside Gainesville.

Worlds collide, and all that.

Many times in Gainesville, I had gone to the Lanier Drive-In Theater to see movies — the most memorable being Goldfinger — and though the drive-in no longer exists, there's a cache there, and thus I had to go give it a good hunt. For both Brugger and I, it was shocking to see how, in a span of about 30 years, a pine and bamboo forest had completely overgrown the old drive-in lot. There are still old speaker posts hiding among the trees, and I have to wonder if ghostly voices don't sometimes emanate from them in the darkness at night....

Last night, we entertained ourselves going to see Wrath of the Titans at one of the newer cinemas in Gainesville. Entertaining fluff, to be sure. Today, the disappointment of having to end this excursion into the past was assuaged by the good company of the present and the little thrill of hunting a fair number of caches on the return trip. I think I've still got some online logging to do....

Click pics to enlarge.

At Atlanta Centennial Olympic Park: So maybe it is some kind of half-ass
Man of Steel pose. What of it?

At Recess Southern Gastro Pub, Gainesville: wine, company, and setting
all very happifying.

Times two.

Anna Ruby Falls; Curtis Creek on the left, York Creek on the right.

Ol' Rodan and Brugger on the way up the mountain.

View of Gainesville from a particularly enjoyable cache site (GC3BYCZ).

Looking up into the bamboo grove at the site of the old Lanier Drive-In in Gainesville.

Train? Check. Ticket? Check. Cache? Check.

Habersham wine and mountains go well together, yes.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Just Another Talking Space Shark

Gamera vs. Zigra
(Gamera Tai Shinkai Kaiju Jigura, 1971)

DVD Description: Released by Shout! Factory, (2011; double-billed with Gamera: The Super Monster); Japanese version with subtitles; Sandy Frank English dub; publicity gallery

Directed by Noriaki Yuasa

Starring Yasushi Sakagami, Gloria Zoellner, Isamu Saeki, Kôji Fujiyama, Eiko Yanami

Rating: 1.5 out of 5 stars

This double-feature package is the last of Shout! Factory's Gamera releases—well-produced, as is typical of these, though the movies themselves are anything but the cream of the crop. Gamera vs. Zigra, produced by Daiei in 1971, was the first of the Showa-era Gamera films to be released on our shores directly to video in the 1980s, with no prior theatrical or television release. Daiei ended up going bankrupt shortly after the film's completion, and it was released in Japan by Dainichi Eihai.

The film opens with an alien spaceship attacking and destroying a Japanese moonbase and then heading for Earth. The opening credits follow, and we are treated to the Gamera theme, sung by the Insane Children From Hell. Down on Earth, Dr. Tom Wallace (Kôji Fujiyama), his son Kenichi (Yasushi Sakagami), Dr. Yosuke Ishikawa (Isamu Saeki), and his daughter Helen (Gloria Zoellner) are enjoying a day of boating off the coast of Japan. They see the alien ship descend into the ocean nearby, and, before you know it, a teleportation beam has brought the little boat on board the spacecraft. A single, reasonably attractive, anthropomorphic space female appears to them and reveals that she is of an alien planet/race known as "Zigra." By way of demonstrating Zigran technological prowess, she creates a gigantic earthquake that wreaks havoc throughout Japan (all off-camera, of course). She then tells her prisoners of Zigra's past history and its great scientific advances—which, unfortunately, have resulted in the destruction of the planet; however, in searching for a new home, Zigra has found Earth (one guess what that means).

Single, reasonably attractive, anthropomorphic space female contacts UN authorities on Earth and orders them to surrender the planet or else. Dr. Tom, a bit on edge after all this, declares that the Zigran woman is insane; in anger, she retaliates by sending the two men into a hypnotic trance. But Kenichi and Helen—precocious, they are—use the ship's control console to hypnotize the woman and make their escape. Enraged, the Zigran overlord—a strange, shark-like being—orders the woman to go to Earth and kill the children, to which she replies it would be simpler to kill all the people of Japan. However, the great and powerful Zigra tells her that humans must be preserved so they can be used for food. Now, Gamera, intent on discovering the identity of the alien interloper, flies in to save the day and rescues the children and their fathers. The UN authorities, after questioning Kenichi and Helen, resolve to attack Zigra. Defense Force jets scramble, but Zigran spaceship makes short work of them with its powerful lasers. Alien woman, disguised as a normal single, reasonably attractive female human, arrives on earth and begins her search for the kids. She hitches a ride with the Sea World dolphin trainer back to the facility, which the military is now using as its center of operations. She finds Kenichi and Helen, but before she can fix their wagons, they call out for Gamera, who obediently appears.

Gamera begins an assault on the Zigran spaceship—which, when hit with big turtle's fire-jet, transforms into the giant shark-like monster. Zigra grows larger and larger, and finally halts the flame-loving turtle with a ray that freezes its cell activity. Back at Sea World, the dolphin trainer and the facility's scientists discover a way to break the alien's hypnotic control with sonic waves. Thus, they manage to disable Zigra woman, only to learn that she actually is a normal human-type person: during the initial lunar attack, she had been driving a moon rover and was captured and put to good use by Zigra.

Drs. Wallace and Ishikawa employ a bathyscaph in an attempt to wake Gamera, only to find that Kenichi and Helen have stowed away on board. Zigra suddenly attacks them and again demands Earth's immediate surrender...or it will destroy the bathyscaph. The UN commander reluctantly agrees to the alien's terms.

An electrical storm approaches the bay, and a bolt of lightning revives Gamera, who snatches the bathyscaph from Zigra and returns it to the surface. Gamera and Zigra face off a final time, and Zigra, using its superior versatility underwater, slices Gamera's chest with its blade-like dorsal fin. Gamera takes hold of Zigra, flies into the air, and then slams the bad critter against the earth. Pinning Zigra to the ground with a boulder, turtle grabs another and uses it, like a hammer on a xylophone, to play the Gamera theme on Zigra's dorsal fins (while dancing merrily along). Finally, Gamera ends Zigra's miserable existence by setting its body on fire, reducing it to ash in a massive conflagration.

Mind you, any sense of excitement evident in the description above is completely accidental. Gamera vs. Zigra is one of the slowest-moving of the Gamera series, with long stretches of exposition (such as the early narrative describing the features and functions of Sea World) and few enjoyable monster scenes. Until near the end of the picture, most of Gamera's scenes are shots of him flying around, eyes perpetually rolling back and forth. Zigra itself is no better or worse than any of Gamera's other foes; its silvery goblin-shark appearance is suitably menacing. Its ability to communicate by speaking in Japanese (presumably via telepathy), in context, works well enough. It's certainly more palatable than the conversation between Godzilla and Angilas in Godzilla vs. Gigan, or even the monster dialogue "translated" by the Shobijin in Ghidrah, the Three-Headed Monster.

Special effects scenes are fewer and sparser than ever in this movie, reflecting the ever-diminishing budgets forced by the collapsing of the Japanese film industry in the early 1970s. Juvenile characters and humor, the trademark of the Gamera films since Gamera vs. Gyaos (1967), are taken to the extreme here, and little Kenichi could hardly be more obnoxious.

Until the re-booted 1990s Gamera series, the big turtle would appear only once more—virtually entirely by means of stock footage—in 1980's Super Monster Gamera, which is the second entry in this Shout! Factory double feature.