My Summer in Rohan

IMG_0373 (Edited)Like an unfortunate number of people, I’m currently furloughed from work, unable to return to a grant project I started a month before the pandemic shut down New York. Given that the work is being done at a local university, it is probable—given from what the state and the university have stated—that I might not be back to work until late August or September when the fall semester begins. So, for the first time since college and probably for the last time until retirement, I have “summer vacation.”

As a miniature wargamer, I have shelves of unpainted models that need attention. I’ve been working away at the pile of shame for the last two months and I’ve made progress, but there’s still a lot of miniatures—mainly from Game Workshop’s line of Middle-earth figures—that require painting. I’ve decided then to spend the summer of 2020 working my way through one of my favorite regions of Middle-earth: Rohan and the surrounding environs. I have ambitions of one day reenacting the War in Rohan on my tabletop, and that’ll require a LOT of models to accomplish.

Last night, I pulled some things off the shelves, grabbed a few reference books, and got stuck in. In the weeks ahead, I’ll show off my progress as Rohan transforms from a sea of gray plastic and unpainted lead into the proud army of the Rohirrim and the foul minions of the treacherous Saruman.

Wish me luck: there’s a lot of horses in my future!

Halloween Horror: Deadly Harvest

harvest.jpgI heard about this movie through a Folk Horror group I’m part of. As that’s a genre I’m fond of, I added it to my watch list and was expecting something other than what I got. I can’t quite call it a horror film, so it only sort of qualifies for my 31 movies, but I’m counting it anyway.

Deadly Harvest is ominously presentient for a 1977 film. The movie depicts a time when dramatic climate change–albeit global cooling in this case–and pollution have crippled the environment. Food is scarce and conditions are getting worse. The government knows that the world is headed towards oblivion with nothing to stop it, but continues a charade to keep the population unaware and under control. But as food shortages grow more common and the government can’t meet the demands of the people, city dwellers begin to prey upon the countryside, raiding farms for the little food found there. The country folk don’t take kindly to this and tensions eventually explode into bloodshed.

The film centers mostly around the Franklin family, and their efforts to keep their family safe as things get worse. One son, Michael, demands more proactive measures and joins  the local police/militia, putting him at odds with his father, Grant, urges for restraint. However, even Grant’s patience and patriarchal wisdom get challenged when a good deed is punished and the family suffers losses. A young Kim Cattrall plays the role of Susie, the oldest Franklin daughter, whose wedding day becomes the catalyst for Grant’s violent change of mind.

Deadly Harvest is one of the many movies centered on environmental collapse produced during the 1970s. It’s almost as if scientists at that time had been pointing out the dangers of unrestrained industry and population explosion, and their potential for gravely impacting conditions on the planet. The films were intended to scare us straight and they were bound to work, right? Surely only a race of idiots would ignore scientific data and warnings for 50 years and doom themselves.

Deadly Harvest, despite not being a true horror film, still gets two skulls out of four for its attempt to drive some sense into us.

Halloween Horror: The Banana Splits Movie

banana_splits.jpgI’m gobsmacked.

Watching this film is perhaps the most surreal experience I’ve ever had and I’ve had my fair share. I found myself making reality checks multiple times during the movie, pausing to take stock that I was indeed sitting on my couch watching a film and not dreaming it. I’d rouse myself back to acceptance that this was a thing that was actually happening, then ten minutes would pass and I’d have to do it again.

The Banana Splits Movie exists in an alternate timeline (and I’m not saying that because I’m still unsure if I actually watched this film or merely dreamed it) where the 1968 Hanna-Barbera kids show has become a long-running staple of children’s entertainment. In this alternate timeline, robotic technology has advanced to the point where the Banana Splits (Fleagle, Drooper, Bingo, and Snorky, for those of you unfamiliar with the show or theme song) are portrayed by robots instead of guys in costumes. They have a human sidekick named Stevie, who is tired of playing second banana to a bunch of puppets (as they’re referred to in the film). Meanwhile, it’s an exciting day for young Harley, who is the biggest Banana Splits fan in the world and has been given a birthday surprise of attending a live taping of the show. Unfortunately for Harley, his family, and the rest of the audience, it’s the final Banana Splits Show as the new network head has decided to cancel the long-running show and use the robot technology in a theme park. Little does he realize that the Banana Splits’ programming compels them to follow the mantra “The show must go on!” And if that entails a hefty body count to fulfill, so be it.

The Banana Splits Movie is not a good one, but I’ll be damned if that’s going to stop me from recommending it. If you grew up watching The Banana Splits Show in either first run or in syndication, this is an audacious train wreck that must been seen to be believed (or disbelieved, I’m still unsure). I’m giving it my first ever rating of five skulls out of four since it boggles the mind so much to allow logic to constrain it.

It would also not be right to conclude this review without at least one link to the “The Tr-La-La Song” as performed by The Dickies. Here you go.

Halloween Horror: Blood Feast

bloodfeast.jpgBlood Feast is a hard film to evaluate. It suffers from what I call “Jimi Hendrix Syndrome.” You know how Hendrix is considered one of the great guitarists of all time, yet anyone who has been playing the guitar for a couple of months can do some Jimi licks? It’s not so much the technical skill to be admired, but the audacity and genius to do it first. This is the case with Blood Feast.

From a purely aesthetic standpoint, Blood Feast is terrible. The acting is wooden, even more so than the sets which are obvious. The writing is awful and the entire movie barely makes it over the one hour mark. Accounts vary on what the budget was, but $60,000 is the high end. And yet, Blood Feast turns up regularly on “Horror Movies You Must See” lists and similar rankings. Why?

The answer is gore. Shot in 1963, long before America had become desensitized to violence due to Vietnam, Blood Feast does not shirk from showing the red stuff, and the practical effects still hold up even today. Organs are harvested, limbs are cut off, tongues yanked out, and more, and Blood Feast isn’t afraid to show us the carnage. Considering this is a movie shot just three years after the relatively-bloodless Psycho, Blood Feast marks a sea change in how gore and violence will be depicted in cinema. It may not be the first to revel in staged bloodshed and bodily mutilation, but it probably does it the best for its time. It even earned itself a Misfits’ song in the process.

While Blood Feast will never be held up as an example of fine acting or screenwriting, it remains an icon of horror cinema. And at an hour and seven minutes, well worth the time it takes to acquaint yourself with it. I give it three-and-a-half skulls out of four.

Halloween Horror: Disciple of Death

discipleAnd I though The Devonsville Terror was bad. Disciple of Death is another 4:3 aspect movie that has clearly been moldering in someone’s footlocker since 1972. The film transfer has lines running down the screen for the entire run time, and the sound is muddy. But let’s get to the movie, shall we.

Disciple of Death is the tale of a Satanic sorcerer brought back to life by the virginal blood of Julia, who accidentally spills some on the grave of the aforementioned wizard. He manifests in the form of Mike Raven, a self-proclaimed occultist, radio DJ, and would-be actor who probably should have stayed behind the microphone. Shenanigans ensue as Raven tries to make Julia his Satanic bride to earn him a reprieve from Hell. Julia’s fiance isn’t too keen on this idea and partners up with the local parson to take down the resurrected Satanist. Standing between them and victory is a summoned earth spirit in the guise of a little person actor dressed like a pilgrim. Luckily, they have help from an undead Kabbalist who equips them with a trio of magical items.

Disciple of Death is only recommended to those with a love of cheesy movies and able to stand an entire movie plagued with film stock problems. Even the parson vs. little person fight isn’t worth the price of admission, and I watched it for free. I give it a half of a skull out of four.

Halloween Horror: Final Prayer

final.jpgOK, now we’re talking. A Vatican investigation into a potential miracle in an old church built atop a pagan holy site? Let’s get going!

Final Prayer is a found-footage movie about a trio of–as noted above–Vatican investigators summoned to a small church in the English countryside. We have Grey, the techie (who is responsible for the footage that comprises the movies) who believes “in something” if not God, Deacon, a veteran investigator who saw a little too much in South America, and Mark, the default and by-the-book leader. Grey and Deacon get off to a bad start, but soon become comrades in arms, despite Deacon and Mark’s belief the miracles are staged to benefit the small parish. However, not everything can be explained away by sub-woofers and fishing line–the local teens seem especially morally ambiguous, for example, and the parish priest is showing curious character traits.

I enjoyed Final Prayer more than I anticipated. While I’m ambivalent to the found-footage genre, the film makes it work, complete with digital glitches that might herald the presence of something about to manifest. The film is not afraid to leave questions unanswered, and viewers hoping for everything tied up in a neat bow will be disappointed unless you’re willing to assume whatever explanation you believed to be correct is the right one. I’m giving Final Prayer thee skulls out of four for entertainment and RPG game-adaptability.

Halloween Horror: The Devonsville Terror

devonvilleThree hundred years ago, three witches were put to death in the village of Devonsville. Now, the time has come for them to take their revenge on the descendants of those who doomed them–and us, the poor, innocent viewing audience.

The Devonsville Terror is a stinker, shot with a shoestring budget, questionable acting (oh please stop, Deanna Haas!), a bit of gratuitous nudity by the director’s wife and star of the movie, and special effects with the emphasis on “special.”

There’s really not much I can say about this one aside from giving props to Amazon Prime Video for padding out their catalogue of movies with whatever drek they can find. The Devonsville Terror isn’t going to be the last movie I watch this month shown on a 4:3 screen ratio and looking like it was transferred through a pan of dirty dishwater. See it if you’re a fan of bad movies and can endure them without wisecracking robots. Otherwise, you’re best avoiding the The Devonsville “Error.” I give it one skull out of four only because I got some inadvertent, out-loud laughs from the film.

Halloween Horror: Cannibal Holocaust

cannibalCannibal Holocaust is a film I’ve long heard about but never seen. It wasn’t exactly a movie you could wander down to Blockbuster Video and take home with you (along with a bag of Blockbuster brand microwave popcorn. Y’all remember that?). There was an excellent independent video store in town (R.I.P. 112 Video) and it’s likely that they had it, but at the time we were all about renting anime films and making jokes about them. So that’s why it wasn’t until this year that the infamous film finally danced across my eyeballs.

If you’ve never heard of the film, it is renowned for two things: 1) being the original “found footage” film–in the very literal sense—and 2) being basically an animal snuff film. At least five animals were actually killed during the making of the movie, their deaths all photographed and appearing in the final cut. If you have a soft spot for animals, even the scaly or shelled kind, you’ll want to give Cannibal Holocaust a hard pass. You’ll probably want to do that too if anthropophagy is also a turn off, even if  fictionalized.

Cannibal Holocaust is the story of four missing documentary filmmakers who vanish in the Amazon and the anthropologist sent down to find them. The first half of the movie deals with the anthropologist’s search and eventual discovery of the footage the filmmakers shot. The film’s back half concerns the attempt by a television network to exhibit the film and the anthropologist’s viewing of the recovered footage. It depicts the fates of the filmmakers and, more importantly, what their actions were leading up to that fate.

Regardless of you’re feelings about the actual animal deaths or the found footage genre, Cannibal Holocaust makes a strong statement about journalistic integrity, the exploitation of indigenous peoples, and our own appetite for the sensational–we feel guilty simply watching the movie, as if we’re complicit in the suffering the movie was responsible for. I think the film succeeds at this more than the director intended.

Cannibal Holocaust is not a film for everyone, nor is it even on the cinemaphile’s list of movies they must see before they die. However, if you’re a fan of horror films and can stomach the contents of the movie, it’s an important one if only for knowing the roots of found footage film and to see why it became an infamous piece of horror cinema. It’s a difficult movie to rate. I give it four skulls out of four as an iconic movie, but only one skull for class and taste.

Halloween Horror: Black Sunday

black-sunday-movie-poster-55x71-cm-1961I thought I was getting witches, but I got vampires instead. That’s not a complaint, but the teaser blurb for Black Sunday (AKA The Mask of Satan) made it sound like a witch revenge movie. However, we’re more than three lines into the narrator’s introduction before the “V word” gets dropped and then its off the races.

Black Sunday tells the tale of two demoniac lovers condemned to death for black magic, Satanic pacts, and vampirism, executed via having a gruesome mask lined with spikes hammered onto their faces. Circumstances prevent the bodies from being properly destroyed and vengeance from beyond the grave is vowed. Three hundred years later, a pair of traveling doctors/professors/scientists take a pit stop at the cemetery containing the “dead” witch vampire, and mistakes are made. Next thing you know, the two vampires are back in action and taking necessary steps to end the noble line that brought about their demise.

The film marks Mario Bava’s credited debut as a feature director and it’s a solid one. Bava would of course go on to direct a slew of Italian horror flicks of varying quailty, including Black Sabbath and Planet of the Vampires, but also MST3k favorites Danger:Diabolik and Hercules in the Haunted World. Black Sunday is a moody film, shot in rich black and white and filled with gothic tropes bound to satisfy anyone looking for a decent classical vampire tale. The film’s cemetery set was the direct inspiration of the one in The Omen, so horror fans will enjoy the familiar depiction of evil’s resting place. The execution masks are a little goofy (they have a bit of a Sleestak vibe going on), but the method of death is gruesome and worth lifting for a horror RPG. I give Black Sunday two-and-a-half skulls out of four.

Halloween Horror: Hagazussa

hagazussaThis is a gorgeous film. From winter forests, to soaring mountain peaks under azure skies, to wide-open vistas where one can see for miles, it is a beautiful piece of cinematography.

It is also a deeply disturbing film. Hagazussa deals with some intense subject matter and may not be for everyone. It’s rare that a horror film can touch a naked nerve in me, but this one did. I believe the experience would have been ever more unsettling if I was a woman, coming into the movie with the gender-specific events and conflicts a woman accumulates throughout her life. Motherhood, mother-daughter relationships, insincere friendships, violence, ostracism, and other subjects are themes that wind through the film, and while I can sympathize with many of them, I cannot empathize with them on a level many women can.

Hagazussa is billed as a “gothic fairy tale,” but it’s much more a folk horror story. Albrun is our protagonist, first introduced as a young girl living alone with her mother in an isolated cabin. It is clear from the start that she and her mother are outcasts, considered witches by the local villagers, and treated with scorn rather than fear. The first act builds our sympathy for Albrun, an investment which pays off in ways we may not like later in the film.

The rest of the film concerns an older Albrun as she tries to keep her sanity as an outcast. She does not have it easy, struggling to raise an infant daughter of her own, much like her mother did. Hints of witchcraft appear, but never manifest, leaving the audience to wonder how much is truth and how much is either Albrun’s or our own interpretations of events.

Hagazussa is a horrific movie, but not what many would consider a horror movie. If you’re looking for bloody corpses and monsters in the dark, you’re in for a disappointment. However, if you desire an even deeper psychological examination of isolation (physical and emotional) and its effects of our humanity than found in The Witch, Hagazussa is for you.

The film is a powerful one, but not a movie I’m likely to rewatch again for sometime. It’s power is insidious, and not an experience I’m eager to repeat. Nevertheless, I give the movie a well-deserved three skulls out of four.