Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Pumpkinhead (twentyfive years later)

Back in 1988 a genre geek teenager was likely to rent every available VHS tape available. In most rental outlets the selection amounted to a hundred or so titles, featuring mainstays like Star Wars and Halloween, and then a constantly revolving B movie roster featuring the likes of Battle Beyond The Stars and Sleepaway Camp. It is within this din of the mid-80's home video explosion that a new breed of direct to video films would emerge, and at the forefront of this new concept in home entertainment was a gnarly low budget scary movie called Pumpkinhead.


Basically a morality play, Pumpkinhead rises above it's "teens partying in the woods" foundations to be able to make several astute cultural observations aiding to the betterment of the story. When a fatal accident pushes a family man to despair, he uses his hillbilly connections to contract the local folklore to exact revenge. Thus, the story unfolds.


I wasn't impressed after viewing Pumpkinhead upon initial home video release.  It was a combination of the, then, prevalent rock video production mentality (which pretty much stains every movie from 1987 to the mid-90's),) and the fact that the film breaks one of the cardinal rules of horror movies in that it shows too much of the monster too soon. Apart from that, this was also a time in which there was a stigma attached to the film in being a direct to video release. Sure, there's probably some thirty something in California rolling his/her eyes as he/she reads this, but to the rest of the world this movie came out of nowhere and kind of didn't make sense in terms of it's importance. Sure, it was previewed in Fangoria like a real movie, but it never appeared at any local Carmike that I ever heard about. Sure, you have big names like Stan Winston and Lance Henrickson attached, but somehow watching Direct to Video in the mid-west back then felt like what watching a made for TV movie. Mostly, the movie's folksy charm bored me. We had seen a thousand teenagers get picked off in the darkened woods by that time, and the creature was already seen and done better in Aliens, and whatever fresh and original that this movie was bringing was lost on me.

The thing is, there is nothing fresh or original about Pumpkinhead. Pumpkinhead is a classic back-to-basics monster movie that relies on building a certain atmosphere rather than coasting along on modern horror movie cliches, and that is the reason it is so much fun to watch. It is done up in all the style that could be offered at the time, however goofy it might seem now. Being the product of the era, a really good story about the high cost of supernatural revenge is cluttered with all the trappings of excessive late 80's film making technique, however, the cheesy MTV lighting and Background Rock soundtrack begin to present a certain charm all these years later. Henrickson's stand alone leading man performance paves the way for Millenium, and Winston's FX house is firing on all cylinders bringing the nifty creation to life. The characterizations, while still archetypal, are slightly more complex than your typical late 80's scream feature, as is the overall concept and story. There is something real about the environment in which Pumpkinhead takes place, and the Razorback Hollow back story could not be more intriguing. It is all much more satisfying than most of what the big studios were churning out at the time. It's basically a modern masterpiece of macabre, and it's just in time for Halloween. For the twenty fifth time.

Fast Forward a quarter century and Pumpkinhead warrants further review. In fact, it's a wonder this film hasn't evolved into a lightly-edited (for language) basic cable holiday workhorse. There's no reason multiple generations of ten year old boys haven't made a ritual of watching this movie in the safe company of family and friends around this time of year, for the past several decades. Pumpkinhead is a film that has aged exceptionally well, and feels more like a Universal Monsters movie then it's slasher flick rip-off  brethren could ever hope to aspire. Dr. Giggles has his place as long as he knows to stand up when Pumpkinhead enters the room.

Monday, September 2, 2013

To Flea, or not to Flea?

Definitely, To Flea.

I've had some good luck when scouring the local flea market scene for unique and obscure treasures. Recent weekends are no exception.

I snagged these two classics for a measly ten dollars. It was one of those moments that I had to be consciously aware of my poker face at all times during the transaction.

Then of course I proceeded along with a hop, skip, and a jump to yet an even more intriguing purchase.


Yes, that's a bootleg  Takara Micro Man Cosmic Fighter, possibly even (?) utilizing restocked merchandise. There are a few things that differentiate it from any previously released version of this toy, first and foremost being that it doesn't come with a figure. This would be a bummer if the cockpit canopy weren't all chrome and sealed shut, thus rendering the issue irrelevant. Upon closer inspection you will see that there are several other accessories that are no longer present, otherwise this could be the real thing, even including what appears to be the actual Takara Micro Man decals and sticker sheet. The motorized and projectile features are there, and the tank tread is not to be mistaken with anything ever produced by Playmates. It swaps out easily with my other Micro Man toys, and it is seriously fun to play with!

I bought it for thirty bucks after talking the lady down from her original fifty, so, yes; the flea is still a place to kick collecting ass all these years later.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

80's Plamodel

Back in '83 I found a local hobby shop selling Japanese robot kits, and the section looked similar to the way these kits appear stacked in these boxes. Just a total disorganized mess, sometimes going back into the shelf three rows deep, with boxes on the bottom getting crushed by the weight. I spent hours digging around there. For a young guy obsessed with these things it was total sensory overload. I look back and think that my interest in building these kits could actually be evidence of huffing too much glue and paint fumes.

Over the past few years I've started gathering up these things again, only I couldn't bear to assemble and paint any of them. They are perfect examples of a moment in fantasy illustration and design that will not repeat itself. I do, however like to wrap them in clear cellophane, with the idea that doing so will help maintain the integrity of the boxes. You know, for when I'm dead and my family goes to sell them.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Jar Jar Abrahms? Bring Back The Gungan!

Last night I finally got around to watching J.J.Abrams STAR TREK for a second time, and I have to say to all the Star Wars fans out there, be careful what you wish for. 

I saw it in the theater and enjoyed it, although I've never felt the need to revisit it until the recent huge Star Wars announcement. As a dyed in the wool Star Wars fan who fell in love with Star Trek in a post Star Wars world, I can sense something missing from the equation that is Abrams STAR TREK, and I hope I'm wrong in fearing for the success of the new movies.

Watching STAR TREK for the first time as a Trekkie is a great viewing experience, mainly for the novelty of it. However, the second time as a regular ass viewer left something to be desired. Watching the reboot at the end of a long day, it became too easy to recline on the couch and fall asleep, dreaming along with the intergalactic cacophony on the screen. While it certainly has it's moments, there is something about the film that, to me, feels small, like a really great episode of a television production instead of an epic big screen extravaganza. I get the same vibe from Super 8, which to me is about as dynamic and exciting as an after school special. I think the whole 80's coming of age tribute thing falls flat. So when they say they're giving the reigns to new Star Wars over to J.J. I get a little nervous. That said, they already have my money and they know it, now all they need to do it make it somewhat worthwhile. So how will they do this?

One of the things I'll be looking for in the new trilogy is that the look and feel of the saga remain in tact. I realize the new blood is the thing we're excited about, but we don't need a more contemporary approach. Just give us the competently lit, moderately paced film with all the impossible dialogue and excruciatingly long stretches of exposition that I've come to expect. I am hoping Abrams tries to emulate Lucas, or even Marquand, and steers clear of any pretense of being a Kershner. STAR TREK is fun when taken as an updated and separate entry, however, this approach will not work for Star Wars. Follow The Beard's lead and maintain his style of film making. Don't try to reinvent the wheel and the end product will at least be watchable.

Another thing I'll be looking for is a story that makes sense beyond just being a vehicle for new Star Wars.
In fact, if there's a lesson to be learned from a lifelong love of Star Wars, it's that it makes no sense to endlessly speculate on the storyline, or one risks being sorely disappointed.  While I feel that the prequels have aged gracefully over the past decade, am excited for the possibility of  these new films tying the two trilogies together in a more cohesive manner. Sure, there's Obi-Wan and Chewie all throughout, but when we get Luke channeling Mace Windu through the Force, we will finally have something whole and complete. If Abrams can establish that type of cohesiveness I will officially be along for the ride. That said, there still isn't any real reason to continue on with these adventures within the context of the existing storyline, and whatever they devise probably isn't going to measure up to defeating the evil Galactic Empire. So the Star Wars Saga is essentially done. It becomes redundant because all the story arcs are completed, and you know what happens to your favorite character. They all start in one place and end in another, and it's all right there on screen for us to see. Well almost all principle characters have completed story arcs. There is one exception to this rule, and depending on your age group you're probably not going to like what I'm about to suggest.

By now, ten years later, it should be obvious to everyone that the only legitimate reason to make anymore Star Wars films is to reveal the fate of Jar Jar Binks. There, I said it. Loud and proud, too. Seriously, Jar Jar is the only main character whose fate is not revealed by the end of the completed saga. There were rumors of Jar Jar being revealed in the background of the Cantina scene for yet another remastered collectors edition, but that never came to pass. Perhaps he would've been seen only briefly, possibly keeping an eye on the situation. That would've been enough to satisfy his narrative. As it stands, he makes a cameo in the beginning of Revenge of the Sith, demonstrating only that he still exists somewhere, an obvious loose end in an otherwise concise storyline.  I personally feel that he needed to jump out in defense of the younglings and take a lightsaber. It would have made sense in terms of the story, while also serving to satisfy the sad, pathetic army of adult fanboys who still cling to their inner child even though the thing has been dead for years and should be put in the ground. The hatred of Jar Jar and the reactionary position on the character adopted by Lucasfilm is probably the only real structural problem in all of the six films, and with new movies on the way here is the chance to rectify the situation.

The case for a prominent role for Jar Jar is simple; He's alive somewhere and he has the most direct connection to Luke out of any surviving prequel character. That's pretty much all we need, because like all supporting characters in Star Wars, Jar Jar Binks is a mechanism utilized to further propel the story. He's basically operating on the same level as Boba Fett or Darth Maul, being a character who is one dimensional and given a few scenes, but whose main purpose is to provide actions that have consequences for the protagonist. He's only in two films, yet he has more direct impact on the story than Chewbacca does in all four of his appearances. The thing about Jar Jar is, unlike Fett or Maul, his story arc doesn't get resolved. That's an opportunity for these new films to become more relevant!

Jar Jar works in the classical literature sense as well. Do you remember getting drunk with your Star Wars buddies and discussing the subtext of the films? Well, I do. I have no problem suggesting that if  Threepio and Artoo are the greek chorus, than Jar Jar is by all means the holy fool. That's one of the few fresh archetypes offered in any Star Wars sequel, and more can be done with it. 

Finally, millions of (now) teenaged kids love the character as one of the few interesting points in a film series that was too dark and over their heads at the time of initial release. These same kids are going to require characters from "their" Star Wars and Jar Jar is the one with the most left to resolve out of any Star Wars character in any Star Wars film, period.

Jar Jar Binks ties the whole thing together like no other character can. He could be brought forward as the rebel warrior responsible for bringing the Mon Calamari on board with the cause,or he could've gone bad, awaiting his chance for redemption.  He doesn't have to be the same character that so irritated fanboys with no lives ten years ago, the point is he can be anything that will still serve the overreaching story arc without looking like yet another new character created solely to milk the cash cow. He can move the story and provide continuity without anything feeling forced. It might be a bitter pill for the resentful thirty-something goofballs, so maybe they can give him an Ewok side-kick to help remind everyone that The Phantom Menace isn't actually the worst Star Wars film..

In any case, this is the type of bold maneuver J. J. Abrams is going to have to properly execute if he wants to contribute something that doesn't follow the trend of each succeeding Star Wars sequel being less entertaining than the previous entry. It's going to take a surprising amount of creativity to make a new Star Wars film that won't be seen as being as superfluous as his STAR TREK. He'll need to lower the fan's guard and throw something truly unexpected at them, and I believe I have just offered one way to do that.

 Until such time as I'm settling in at the movie theater, I'll try to remain cautiously optimistic about these new films. That means I hope they are every bit as good as the prequels.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Not-So-Frivolous Purchases

Sometimes it's okay to spend your money on something stupid. In my case, it's thirty year old die-cast robot toys. Notice the hand painted artwork. It's like a legacy of skill and technique molded into a middle finger and aimed squarely at Adobe. I like to envision the inferred ensuing destruction occurring in the form of several or more decimated city blocks, also painted in oils. Why not? After all, the human race only gets one last stand. Or maybe two.

Yours truly, Steve A., the blase blogger, aka Matt Zen, the guy who goes six months between posts, recently found himself tossed out onto the unemployment line. Not so bad, one might say. Just the final step in the five year career of a dutiful employee working for some rich white guy's tax shelter.  But then what happens?

Within two weeks I began to develop an upset stomach. Like, a crazy, audibly gurgling, upset stomach...after all, I'm too old to be kicking about on the dole. It kept getting worse, so two days before my insurance policy expired I decided to make one last trip to the local expedited for-profit medical center to get a prescription. Boy am I glad I didn't!

Not being able to find the place (a new facility,) after several passes, I continued on to the local center of commerce. There, I stopped in at the local vintage toy store (small towns really do have the best,) thinking to discuss pawning off some part of my sizable collection, as well as make good on a previous an offer on a Converters Jumbo Defender. Lo and behold! Sitting on the floor was a pile of vintage robot toys from the era of the Real Robot, an era I hold dear. Change of plans! After examining a few pieces I made my selection and then an offer, finally walking out of the establishment with a few less cares, the least of which being an expensive prescription  that I could no more afford in my current state of employment. 

Later, after examining and polishing my new treasures, I realized something; the churning stomach that compelled me to head out the door in the first place had subsided. And with each passing day of caring for my new acquisitions, cataloging and filing, my stomach felt better.  It is as if the special treat that is tending to ones particular interests is enough to settle an inflammation and agitation that only occurs when dealing with the realities of the world as they manifest themselves outside of ones own self. In short, doing the thing that makes one happy, however ridiculous, is the action that makes one healthy.

I can't explain exactly what it is about 80's Mecha that secures my happiness, but I love talking about and considering it. Now that I'm bounding about as opposed to being bound up, I'm more willing to embrace the notion of following ones bliss, for it is most definitely the correct path for anyone not otherwise "making a good showing" with their pocketbook. Surely there is more written on this subject by wiser men, but here it is experienced to be known.