Saturday, January 31, 2009

Surprise visit from He Who Kills

Sometime in the mid-70s, on the elementary school playground, a friend told me a story (more of a fragment, really) about a possessed doll that had a chain tied around its waist. When the chain fell off, the doll came to life, attacking everyone in the house, until finally someone trapped it in the oven and burned it to death. I had no idea what the source of this story was (and neither did the teller, apparently) but it sounded absolutely horrifying.

It was YEARS later that I randomly stumbled upon Trilogy of Terror (1974) on television, the Dan Curtis-directed, made-for-TV anthology comprised of three short stories by Richard Matheson.

I finally discovered that the "possessed doll" in my friend's playground ghost story was none other than the Zuni fetish doll from Matheson's short-story "Prey" (1969), retitled "Amelia" for the TV adaptation.

Sure enough, the Zuni fetish doll has the magical chain around its waist. As Amelia (played by Karen Black) describes it in the original story:

"There's a golden chain around it to prevent the spirit from--escaping, I guess...His name is He Who Kills. You should see his face."

Of course the chain does fall, and the doll mysteriously disappears from sight. After some tense cat-and-mouse with lamps shutting off, and knives vanishing from countertops, the doll goes into full-scale attack mode, before finally being negotiated into the oven to meet his demise.

The Zuni fetish doll made another appearance in the sequel, Trilogy of Terror 2 (1996), although I haven't seen it, and its currently unavailable on DVD.

But I was recently watching an episode of Nightmares and Dreamscapes (2006), the horror anthology TV series which adapts short stories by Stephen King. The episode "Battleground" (based on a story originally found in King's "Night Shift") is about a professional assassin who keeps a souvenir from each of his victims in a display case. Guess what one of those souvenirs turns out to be?

The "Battlegound" episode was directed, coincidentally, by Matheson's son, Richard Christian Matheson, and, like "Prey", centers on a toy that comes to life in an apartment and plays cat-and-mouse with the lone occupant before escalating into a full-on assault.

Read the original text of Matheson's short story "Prey" here.
Read the original text of King's short-story "Battleground" here.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Thing At The Foot of the Bed (Maria Leach, 1977)

If you enjoyed listening to those scary stories (posted here, here, here, here, and here) you might enjoy reading them as well. They can all be found in The Thing At The Foot of the Bed (Maria Leach).

This great collection of traditional ghost stories from folklore and urban legend has been in and out of print in various editions since 1959 (the one pictured here is 1977). Like "The Golden Arm" or "The Hitch Hiker", these are stories that have been told and retold through the years, their original authors long forgotten. This makes them popular source material for adaptation.

In fact, most of the stories found here, (including the title story) have been recorded for children's records at some point, or appeared in other scary story anthologies.

Some of these include The Thing At The Foot of the Bed, Here We Go!, The Guitar Player, Wait Till Martin Comes, Big Fraid and Little Fraid,
The Golden Arm, The Dare, I'm In the Room!, As Long As This?, Dark Dark Dark, The Ghostly Hitchhiker, and The Cradle That Rocked Itself.

Leach includes an author's notes section and bibliography identifying the motif of the story, its origins and variations (for example, did you know "The Ghostly Hitchhiker" is an "old European tale said to have turned up in America about 1890"?)

AND IF YOU REALLY ENJOYED THOSE AUDIO CLIPS.... check out the excellent Scar Stuff blog. It doesn't look like Scar Stuff is being updated any longer (the last post is over a year ago) and the audio downloads (where those clips originated) are no longer available, but Scar Stuff is still a treasure trove of carefully researched information on Halloween and scary-themed recordings, accompanied by blogmaster Jason's endearing nostalgic commentary.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Rattlesnake Eggs!

The classic gag, available for sale from Adams--an envelope of "rattle-snake eggs":

You wind up the washer on the rubber band (in this version, the wand that holds the rubber band even looks a little snake-like), carefully place into the envelope, and hand to someone to inspect. When the envelope is opened, the washer, powered by the rubber-band, spins against the paper, making a loud rattle that should scare the bejezus out of the victim.

This clip-art detail from the packaging provides a close approximation of the victim's reaction:

The one pictured here was purchased at Disneyland for only three bucks. Who says you can't find a cheap souvenir at Disneyland anymore?

And if you don't want to part with three bucks, you can make the gag yourself with a pair of paper clips and a rubber band. Here's the directions, courtesy of "Spooky Stuff" (1979, Shari Lewis), a children's book of Halloween party hints and tips.

The author is former TV-kids show host and Lamb Chop puppeteer Shari Lewis. Shari recommends inserting a rattler gag with each party invitation you send out. Nice. I'll be revisiting "Spooky Stuff" in later posts.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Drive-In Discs Collection (Elite Entertainment, 2003)

The Drive-In Discs Collection (Elite Entertainment, 2003) is a nifty 3-DVD box set that tries to simulate the 1950s or 60s drive-in movie experience in your home.

Each disc contains a double-feature of vintage schlock, bumpered by concession stand ads, an intermission, a pair of short-subject cartoons, and film trailers.

The best gimmick of this set is an alternate DISTORTO audio track. This track layers ambient sound effects over the regular movie soundtrack... crickets chirping, cars parking and doors opening and closing, and audience laughter, screams, and other reactions. (You'll even here conversational snippets, like someone asking if anyone wants anything from the snack bar, etc.)

I think the DISTORTO track works better in theory than in practice. When it sticks to the sounds effects, it really gives the sensation of being at a drive-in theater. But some of the "audience members" get a bit chatty at times, in some cases even offering up their own, um, "witty" commentary to what's occurring on-screen, and the result is more annoying than entertaining. Still, I applaud the effort, and find I usually end up switching back and forth between DISTORTO and the regular audio track throughout the program.

To give you an idea of what you're in for, here's a run-down of the contents of the disc one double-feature: Attack of the Giant Leeches / The Screaming Skull.
The title menu screen, followed by a barely animated ticket-taker tearing your ticket:
First, the National Anthem, complete with sing-a-long lyrics:

I really like this next one. This no-nonsense spokesman sternly warns that noise and outbursts will not be tolerated, and those asked to leave the theater today will not be admitted in the future. AWESOME! Put this guy on a postage stamp.

Next is an ad for "PIC", a mosquito-repelling candle of sorts, perfect to keep pests away at the drive-in or at the backyard barbecue:

Next we have your basic all-purpose refreshment stand ad. Hot dogs, pizza, hot and cold beverages, chicken wings(?)..they've got it all:

Another great one... this ad warns against "public displays of affection." Because one thing that isn't for sale at the refreshment stand is dignity.

A trailer for The Wasp Woman (now showing on Disc 2 of this very set!)

And now a cartoon (Betty Boop):

Better get those PIC candles lit...the first show is starting! "Attack of the Giant Leeches" (1960):

Now is a good time to point out that the quality of the transfers of the actual films is awful! They look like 4th generation VHS. Feel free to rationalize this as being an accurate recreation of the beat-up prints that got projected at the actual drive-in, if that makes it tolerable.

After the end credits of "Attack of the Giant Leeches" roll, we go right into the classic "Let's All Go To The Lobby" concession stand ad:

Followed by a "Tex Rides Again" intermission spot:

Then a cartoon hot-dog that wants you to eat him!

And the hotdog's green doppelganger, Chilly Dilly, the pickle:

Next, a trailer for The Giant Gila Monster (also appearing in its entirety on Disc 2 of this set):

A second short-subject (Popeye):

Hope you got your Chilly Dilly, because the B-picture is starting..."The Screaming Skull" (1950):

This static graphic appears after the end credits of "Screaming Skull" roll:

The Drive-In Discs Collection is out of print as of this writing, but used copies can be found at reasonable prices.