Halloween Horror: Scars of Dracula

scarsDracula pops out of the coffin for Hammer’s fifth film in its series about the Count (although this is only fourth one he actually appears in) with Scars of Dracula. I’m certain this title was one by committee, as there is a distinct lack of scars in the movie. Maybe it refers to the lash marks on Dracula’s servant’s back? Title-wise, it ranks up there with Scream, Blackula, Scream! from truth in advertising, butI digress before I even get to the review.

Scars of Dracula sees the Count back at his castle in GermHungavanian or whichever country most of the Hammer Dracula films are set in after having been rendered into blood dust in England at the climax of Taste the Blood of Dracula. We’re not given an explanation of how the red Folger’s crystals of Dracula and his cape made it home, but there’s partial nudity and poorly-designed bats awaiting us, so we press on. Dracula gets burned out of house and home in short order, but you can’t keep the Count down. Before long, the castle is back in serviceable condition and Dracula begins his reign of occasional terror. Mostly by waiting for people to wander close enough to his castle to send his servant out to collect them, or to simply hope that people knock on his door looking for a place to stay. I’d venture that Dracula really needs to get more proactive, but he’s a couple centuries old so I’ll forgive him for his hunting lassitude. Luckily, he also has bats.

This is the first Hammer film that demonstrates Dracula’s command over the lesser beasts, and it would be much more effective if we weren’t dealing with 1970s film bat technology–black felt on a coconut and held aloft by two pieces of fishing line, or so I’d venture. If you can get past the bats’ goofiness, however, the Count dispatching them to, well, dispatch, the town’s women, children, and elderly huddled for safety in the church while the menfolk burn down his castle is pretty hardcore.

Scars of Dracula originates during Hammer’s decline, shot with a reduced budget and distribution. Nevertheless, I never get tired of seeing Christopher Lee strap on the cape and the bloodshot contact lenses for another go around as the Count. While not the best of the Hammer Draculas, it’s still good enough to rate two-and-a-half skulls out of four on the horror-meter.

Halloween Horror: Night Tide

night-tideI stumbled upon a reference to this film while reading Sex and Rockets, a biography of rocket scientist and magician Jack Parsons. Parson’s “elemental,” the woman he claims to have conjured into his life via a magical rite, Marjorie Cameron, appears in the movie, thus earning its mention in Parson’s biography. Half-curious to know what an elemental looks like, I added it to the old watchlist when it became free on Prime. So after viewing it, I can  attest that an elemental looks pretty much like any other 40 year-old white woman in California. Mystery solved.

Night Tide features a very young Dennis Hopper as Johnny, a Navy recruit on furlough along the seedy amusement pier and boardwalk of Santa Monica and Venice Beach. There, he meets a Mora, a young woman who makes a living as a “mermaid” in one of the amusement pier’s sideshows. The two begin a relationship, but before too long, thanks to the mysterious presence of both Marjorie Cameron’s character (credited as “Water Witch”) and Mora’s guardian and employer, Captain Murdock, Johnny begins to suspect Mora may actually be a mermaid–a siren, actually, one of the sea people who lure sailors to their deaths.

The film is more thriller than horror, something you might see on an episode of The Twilight Zone or Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Shot in black-and-white and with a modest budget, Night Tide holds no true scares and only the occasional menace. It’s more a curiosity than a must-see, if only for Cameron’s presence and a very pre-Easy Rider Hopper. I’d normally give it a lower grade, but the movie has the only “Bongos by” credit I’ve ever seen in a motion picture (give it up for Chaino, ladies and gentlemen!). It would also make a pretty good Cthulhu Confidential investigation featuring a Deep One hybrid struggling to make sense of her condition and heritage along the beach of Los Angeles. Those two factors bump it up to an even two skulls out of four.

Halloween Horror: Bride of Re-Animator

reanimatorWe’ll kick of our 31 nights of horror movies with Bride of Re-Animator, a movie that’s been languishing on my watchlist for a few months. It’s sat there largely due to the general disinterest I’ve been feeling towards Lovecraft and the Mythos recently. This is a case of familiarity breeding contempt; with Cthulhu largely becoming a mainstream figure, I’m experiencing some very hipster-like feelings towards the Mythos’ increased market penetration.

Luckily, there’s no Cthulhu or Mythos anywhere in Bride of Re-Animator, which picks up eight months after the events of the first film. West and Cain continue their quest to perfect Herbert’s reagent (or is it re-agent to go along with the movie’s title convention?) in war-torn Central America, but before long they’re back at Miskatonic University Hospital for another round of horror and comedy straight out of the first movie’s playbook. The head of Dr. Hill makes a return and West’s experiments go beyond defeating death and begin to focus on creating life–albeit, in true Frankenstein fashion, from dead tissue.  Things unsurprisingly go awry, culminating in an ill-advised attempt to restore Meg, Cain’s dead fiancée from the first film, to life (in the guise of another actress).

Bride of Re-Animator doesn’t stray much from the formula Re-Animator followed, so if you’ve seen first film, you know precisely what you’re getting into. I did enjoy that the sequel has a few stronger call-outs to the short story it’s based upon (West and Cain conducting experiments in a war zone, their home/laboratory adjacent to the cemetery, and West’s final fate), which the original severely lacked.

I’m not certain how I never managed to see this movie despite viewing the original several times. I’m assuming it was a case of my local video store(s) never carrying it back in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But now that omission has been rectified. It’s equal to its predecessor, earning Bride of Re-Animator two skulls out of four on my Halloween Horror scale of enjoyment.

 

Autumnal Stirrings

mansionI received an email recently from my webhost reminding me that this site’s annual fees would soon be due. “Ah, that’s right,” I thought, “I have a blog I’ve neglected. I should do something about that.”

In honestly, I haven’t forgotten about Shivers and Shudders. I’ve merely been focused on other work and real life concerns over the past several months. I’ve intended to get my groove back, but projects keep piling up, health issues develop (it’s as if middle age landed with a belly flop right atop me in 2019), and constantly shifting interests all undermine my plans. Since I’ve always intended to utilize this space as a place for my ramblings without a set schedule, I’m not too sorry for this, but I do want to make more out of it.

Tomorrow is October 1st, which is a favorite month of mine, that chronological antipode to the cruelest month according to Eliot. It’s not the autumn of my childhood (and likely will never be again), but the creeping chill mists and cool nights retain a vestige of the old magic of youth.

When I was still on social media, I had a not-altogether-unique tradition of watching 31 scary movies during October and offering short reviews as Facebook posts. Since this is the first year I’m not on social media, but still enjoy the tradition, I intend to carry it over here beginning tomorrow. For the next 31 days, I’ll posts quick reviews of a film watched in October. The rules are simple: I must watch 31 films, although not necessarily one per day, and they must be films I’ve never seen before. And they must of course be a technically in the horror genre.

I’ve a got a bunch of obscure ones lined up (thank you, Amazon Prime Video), and hope that the daily chronicling with get me used to blogging again. Maybe some other content will be sprinkled in among the reviews as well. Anything’s possible in the magical month of October.

From Boltguns to Bolt Action

tanks-infantry-700As someone who has a vested interest in historical miniatures wargaming, I found this latest article over at the Warlord Games website to be a godsend. Many wargamers from my generation and later were lured into the hobby’s vile clutches through the fiendish manipulations of Games Workshop. While I’m not bashing anyone preferred form of miniature recreation, I do hope that younger wargamers look outside the product lines of GW and discover there’s plenty of other options out there–many of which can be enjoyed for far less than the usual arm-and-a-leg Games Workshop products tend to command.

Miniature wargaming isn’t exactly a booming hobby, so anything that help grow the base is a good measure by my reckoning. If you’re cool, you might even earn an invite to Hoffcon one day…

A “The Sinister Sutures of the Sempstress” Review

I stumbled across a review of my 2016 DCC Halloween module The Sinister Sutures of the Sempstress yesterday. The reviewer gushed about this creepy nugget of mine, which I was glad to read because I’m fond of this little horrific trip into some bad neighborhood of the collective unconscious. Reviews fascinate me if only because I’m always intrigued by what people find behind my written words. All manner of inspirations and motifs can be read into another’s work–even if they’re not intentionally present. In this case, it sounds like I really need to play Silent Hill. I’ve long been tempted to pay a psychoanalyst to read my entire body of work and then make a diagnosis of my mental bugbears just to see what a professional thinks is at work in the haunted house that is my mind.

Check out the review here.

Happy Rising R’lyeh Day

rlyeh

On March 23d, the manuscript continued, Wilcox failed to appear; and inquiries at his quarters revealed that he had been stricken with an obscure sort of fever and taken to the home of his family in Waterman Street. He had cried out in the night, arousing several other artists in the building, and had manifested since then only alternations of unconsciousness and delirium. My uncle at once telephoned the family, and from that time forward kept close watch of the case; calling often at the Thayer Street office of Dr. Tobey, whom he learned to be in charge. The youth’s febrile mind, apparently, was dwelling on strange things; and the doctor shuddered now and then as he spoke of them. They included not only a repetition of what he had formerly dreamed, but touched wildly on a gigantic thing “miles high” which walked or lumbered about. He at no time fully described this object, but occasional frantic words, as repeated by Dr. Tobey, convinced the professor that it must be identical with the nameless monstrosity he had sought to depict in his dream-sculpture. Reference to this object, the doctor added, was invariably a prelude to the young man’s subsidence into lethargy. His temperature, oddly enough, was not greatly above normal; but his whole condition was otherwise such as to suggest true fever rather than mental disorder.

On April 2nd at about 3 p.m. every trace of Wilcox’s malady suddenly ceased. He sat upright in bed, astonished to find himself at home and completely ignorant of what had happened in dream or reality since the night of March 22nd.

Hail (Mother) Hydra!

I recently added a copy of Before the Fall, the 1998 Call of Cthulhu adventure supplement that contains four scenarios which take place prior to the 1927-1928 raid of Innsmouth (as described in Lovecraft’s original story and the CoC supplement Escape from Innsmouth). While I’m trimming my RPG collection, I occasionally indulge myself. I’m also in the middle of Shadows Over Innsmouth, an anthology of Innsmouth-related short stories published, so that Deep One-infested ruined town in at the forefront of my brain.

Paging through Before the Fall, I came across the following: “Watch for Children of the Deep, due out in 1999, which will portray Innsmouth after the federal government raid of 1928.” This was the first I heard of this planned supplement that never came to fruition. It’s not the sole Call of Cthulhu release to be announced then die on the vine, but it’s perhaps the one that would have interested me the most.

I’ve been familiarizing myself with Trail of Cthulhu as a possible interlude campaign to run in the second half of this year. I’ve only run it briefly before, but GUMSHOE is one of those systems that intrigues me and I’d like to become more adept at it. To that end, I bought Arkham Detective Tales, thinking that by running a few canned adventures, I could pick up the nuances of the GUMSHOE system. One of the the adventures in that book is “The Wreck,” which concerns an abandoned freighter drifting into New York harbor and what it brings with it. The adventure has ties to Innsmouth and ends with a confrontation on East Fire Island, a place not too far from my where I’m currently writing this.

“The Wreck” is set after the raid and hints at some of what occurs in Innsmouth in the years following the federal governments discovery of Deep One infestation. It’s a topic I’d like to build upon more. I even have an idea or two about where the Deep One hybrids that escape arrest in the raid might end up (hint: It starts with a “Long” and ends with an “Island”).

Right now, it’s one of many ideas cluttering up my mental stove top, bubbling away on my all-too-numerous back burners. But if I run Trail of Cthulhu later this year, I’m going to do so with an eye toward leading to other investigations beyond those presented in the book. One can already be tied into a trip to my own Wildwyck County (weird Catskills region historical horror setting I created for Fight On! magazine oh too many years ago). The other could be a follow-up that leads out to Long Island’s East End and perhaps a certain remote island that’s been in private hands since the colonial days.

I wonder if there’s an ashcan copy of The Children of the Deep lurking out there in the depths of the internet…

Mythos Ghosts

anathemaA few weeks ago, I attended Total Con and received a welcome invitation to join in on a Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign scheduled to begin in a few weeks. Unfortunately, the game’s Sunday night meeting schedule conflicts with my own local gaming group and I had to regretfully decline. However, the invitation got my Call of Cthulhu synapses firing again and I’ve been thinking a great deal about what to run in the future. We’re over a year into our ongoing The One Ring campaign, but I’ve already alerted the players that I’ll be calling a brief hiatus once we hit an appropriate milestone in Middle-earth. After that, it’ll be time to switch gears for a bit and something Cthulhu-related is a viable candidate.

This has thinking about how to interpret supernatural events in a Mythos-themed setting. It’s a topic I’ve attacked before with various success. Sometimes I’m turned off by the fact that in Lovecraft’s work, it’s the Mythos at the bottom of everything. From a literary standpoint, this conceit provides a solid foundation and accomplished what H.P. wanted—a different bogeyman than the traditional ghosts, vampires, and werewolves that filled the genre prior to his efforts. But from a gaming standpoint, it can be a little “same same” if the players know there’s a Mythos beastie behind every bit of backwoods folklore.

At the moment though I’m enjoying the mental exercise of trying to twist various Mythos phenomenon and entities into classical monsters—or at least as the seeds that spawn the folklore that hint at traditional monsters and evil things. You can’t get much more classical than a ghost, so I’ve start there. Off-hand, I can’t remember if Lovecraft ever wrote a story that features the restless spirit of a dead person inhabiting a crumbling building (“The Shunned House” is close, but not quite). If he did, the story is hiding in the far stacks of my mental library and I’m sure someone will remind me of it or it’ll come to me at 3 AM some stormy night [Author’s note: Or before I finish writing this essay!]. Until then, however, let’s say Howard never did and instead think about how he could have used a ghost in his stories and still plays by the Mythos rules.

  1. Sorcerer trapped in the angles of time: Now that I write that, it’s clear that “The Dreams in the Witch House” was Lovecraft’s ghost story and used this as its premise. Keziah Mason manifests from outside physical reality to carry out her evil deeds and acts very much in the ghost story tradition. But whereas Mason seems to have control over her interactions with the earthly realm, we can twist this around and make our ghost be a human sorcerer who imperfectly meddled with the angles of time and space and is now trapped in its folds. Only on certain dates, during specific astronomical events, in the presence of objects charged with magical energy or even the sorcerer’s blood relatives does it the power to manifest and interact with the physical plane. An exorcism of such a trapped wizard might appear to cleanse the house, but the “ghost’s” quiescence is really due to changing conditions closing off its access from its trapped position in the cosmic realms. This remission might last several years or only until the blood relative (likely a PC in true Call of Cthulhu fashion) returns to the house.
  2. Telekinetic Phenomenon: The classic poltergeist manifests as physical effects caused by an invisible force moving objects and people and lacking a visible form. A poltergeist could then easily be a creature, human or otherwise, capable of telekinesis. Anything from powerful psychics, diabolical magicians (such as is the case in the CoC adventure “The Haunting”), Tibetan mystics, lloigor, and the like might be the root of a poltergeist haunting. All the holy water and burning sage in the world won’t stop a haunting when its cause is the deathless wizard in the secret basement crypt or the lloigor lurking around the fetid loch near the old manor.
  3. Time Traveler: That indistinct human form glimpsed in the shadows or out of the corner of one’s eye is in fact a person under the effects of liao, the Plutonian Drug, who has ventured back into time from anywhere from a few decades in the future to centuries from now. Perhaps the strain of liao is an uncommon one that grants the user the ability to interact outside the Fourth Dimension and become visible by those it is observing. That terrible death that was attributed to the “ghost” might actually be the victim of a Hound of Tindalos on the track of the temporal visitor. The liao strain has the unintended side-effect of “marking” anyone who glimpses the ghost, making it possible for the Hounds to detect them too.
  4. Dimensional Shambler: My first exposure to the dimensional shamble (outside of “The Horror in the Museum” which doesn’t call them that by name) was Call of Cthulhu 4th edition, in which it is said that these creatures “are capable of walking between the planes and worlds” and “They can leave a plane at will, signaling the change by beginning to shimmer and fade.” One could therefore theorize that the dimensional shambler also displays some sort of shimmering and fading in when they enter a dimension. If a witness sees an indistinct thing shimmer and seem to solidify in a darkened room, this might be interpreted as a ghostly apparition—especially if the witness flees the area before the dimensional shamble fully manifests in physical form. An ancient manor may be “haunted” by a shambler who is bound into servitude to the family via an heirloom once owned by the family’s founder, a black magic dabbler who anchored the shambler to a locket or ring or other personal object. Ending the haunting would be done by freeing the dimensional shambler—but that probably causes just as many problems as it solves.
  5. Mi-Go Origin: Given the Fungi from Yoggoth’s ability to manipulate physical bodies and their vast command of technology, it’s feasible that the Mi-Go might be able to create phenomenon that could easily be misconstrued as the manifestation of deceased souls. A “harmonic wave manipulator” could allow physical creatures to pass through solid matter. A “presence projector” might create a holographic image capable of speaking with those in the vicinity of its manifestation, creating a translucent form to communicate with bystanders. Even “cloaking webs” that provide Predator-like camouflage could be responsible for ghost sightings at night or in eerie, mountainous forests.
  6. Temporal Echoes: Some scholars of the supernatural postulate that ghosts are actually holographic recordings of past events that get replayed by magnetic fields or other energy patterns. This could be one possible explanation that fits with the science fiction vibe of Lovecraft’s stories. These echoes might be naturally occurring or side effects created by the working of powerful, physics-breaking sorcery. Perhaps magic points generated by sacrificing a living creature sometimes “bleed off” instead of powering the rite they’re intended to feed and scenes from the sacrifice’s life occasionally manifest in the vicinity. This could lead to “ghost dogs” and “spectral cats” just as easily as human-shaped ghosts. Perhaps each echo also produces residual magical effects tied into the rite they died to fuel, causing all manner of mysterious harm to those who encounter them.
  7. Magic: Certain spells could recreate ghostly manifestations, allowing sorcerers to feign a haunting. While a possibility, using magic in this manner sounds like a bad Scooby-Doo episode. So why would an insane wizard use spells in this manner? Perhaps it is unintentional, being instead the perceived manifestations of a magical working? A sorcerer moves out of phase with space and time as he duels a rival or works a powerful enchantment on multiple angles of reality, creating perceived ripples in the physical world. Or maybe the sorcerer is trying to generate immense emotional energy from those observing this phenomenon in order to power a greater and potentially more sanity-blasting working to summon an eldritch thing across dimensional thresholds? Terror can be generated again and again, whereas a sacrifice gives its energy only once. One last possibility is that ghostly phenomenon are side-effects of tampering with the laws of physics and anyone working a magical spell causes phenomenon to occur in the general vicinity. This could also explain Fortean events that are sometimes linked to hauntings.
  8. Natural Tillinghast Resonator: Some substance causes the same effect as Tillinghast’s resonator, stimulating the pineal glands of those exposed to it and allowing them to perceive entities in adjacent dimensions. The substance could be a hitherto undiscovered radioactive element (perhaps one brought down from Yuggoth), an herb, a rare drug, a meteorite, or any other organic or inorganic material capable of changing the body’s physiology, even temporarily. Those exposed to the substance glimpse things swimming in and out of the visible spectrum and manifest strange wounds inflicted by these spectres.
  9. Ancestral Memory: Racial memory was a favorite plot point for Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard, so adapting it to our needs in appropriate. Let’s postulate a person capable of unconscious self-hypnosis, perhaps accessing their ancestral memory when they’re in a hypnopompic state. Images of those long dead appear to them, carrying on conversations or engaging in actions they performed long ago. The subject might be susceptible to suggestion while in this state and interaction with a nefarious ancestor’s memory—perhaps those of a long-dead relative with a predilection towards serial murder—begins insinuating itself on the subject’s personality, leading to possession-like effects that are actually self-inflicted. The ghostly phenomenon would only be experienced by the subject, but their actions while “possessed” would be the vector that leads to player characters’ investigation of matters.
  10. Mythos-caused Hallucinations: The ghosts are not real, but that doesn’t mean the witnesses don’t have other problems. Some other Mythos entity is causing them to hallucinate unexplainable events. It could be the Mi-Go-manufactured spores leaking out of the Devil’s Hopyard or latent memories seeping up from the unconsciousness from that time the observer was possessed by a Yithian. The manor’s steady diet of Deep One-tainted seafood from out beyond the reef causes auditory phenomenon and makes the eater see red liquid flowing down the walls or across the floor. While the investigators are chasing spectres, the real cause is about to close in on the unsuspecting ghost-breakers.

There are undoubtedly numerous other possibilities I’m overlooking, some of which will stem from canonical Lovecraft works (such as “The Mound” now that I think of it) or the mass of extended writings filling out both the Mythos and the Call of Cthulhu RPG. I accept that. I wanted to brainstorm a bit without doing any research or fact-checking from the extended Cthulhu corpus of work, and this list is the result. Not a bad start and there’s a few solid adventure seeds and plot twists lurking in there. All in all, it’s a good beginning to the prolonged process of Mythos investigation planning. More to come.