Thursday, February 26, 2009

Album of Dinosaurs (Tod McGowen, Rod Ruth, 1972)

I've always considered dinosaurs to be a sub-category of monster. They've always carried that aura of the fantastic, as wondrous and terrifying as any dragon, sea-serpent or other monster from mythology or the imagination.

Imagination isn't really required any longer to envision living, breathing dinosaurs. Modern productions like the Jurassic Park series or Walking With Dinosaurs have given us dinosaurs that seem more real than anything I ever dreamed up as a child. Yet in doing so, I think they robbed the dinosaur of some of its mythic grandeur, reducing them to just ordinary, albeit extinct, members of the animal kingdom.

But lets step back in time just a little bit. Pre-CGI and pre-Jurassic Park, dinosaurs in film were never very convincing. There were some impressive stop-motion dinosaurs created by Ray Harryhausen (Valley of Gwangi, One Million Years B.C.) or Jim Danforth (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth) and traditional cel-animated specimens (Disney's Fantasia, Hanna Barbera's Valley of the Dinosaurs). There were also dinosaurs realized through costumes or puppets (The Last Dinosaur, The Land That Time Forgot). And finally, real live iguanas or other reptiles, dressed up with horns and fins and photographed up close to emulate their prehistoric ancestors (When Dinosaurs Ruled the Earth again, Journey to the Center of the Earth). While they all made for exciting spectacle, they rarely seemed very realistic.

Which is what made Album of Dinosaurs (1972) such a great book. For a kid in the 1970s, the beautiful pictures contained here (illustrations are by Rod Ruth, of Baleful Beasts and Eerie Creatures fame) were like a window into the past, presenting dinosaurs more realistic than could yet be found in any film, while still retaining that intangible mythic, larger-than-life quality that elevates them above mere animals.

On a more practical level, the book’s large size and smooth hardcover made it the perfect portable work-surface, which means I logged countless hours staring at that magnificent cover T-rex while it peeked over the top of whatever writing or drawing project I was working on.

These scans don’t really do the illustrations justice.












There were many books in the “Album of...” series, including Album of Prehistoric Animals, Album of Sharks, Album of Prehistoric Man, Album of Whales, Album of Astronomy, etc. Books of this series used to be common staples of any good used book store, but it seems they’ve become increasingly rare. Worth seeking out.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The Witch's Catalog (Norman Bridwell, 1976)

This is a fun little book by Norman Bridwell, of Clifford the Big Red Dog fame (he also authored a series based around a witch character who looks very similar to the witch pictured here). There are all kinds of magical items to order in "The Witch's Catalog" (1976).

The conceit that you are not merely reading about the magical items but are actually in possession of the catalog itself that a witch orders from elevates the whole experience... you are not merely holding a book, but an artifact from the supernatural world!

For the junior chef, there's this Witch's Cookbook, featuring recipes for stewed spider supreme, baked bats, scorpion sauce, and other delights. May as well get the Witch's Kitchen Kit while you're at it--it's received the Good Witch's Seal of Approval.

Animal lovers can order this birdhouse for bats that is chemically treated to attract bugs...

If you have a green thumb (or know a graveyard where you can dig up someone else's) there's the Ghastly Garden kit.

This next item is being marketed to the girls, but it looks like something the boys would enjoy just as much. This Haunted Doll House comes complete with a terrified family of four.

I don't totally get this next one. Seems a witch's night light would attract "creepy things" that "go bump in the night", not repel them, but what do I know about retail?

And it's not all scary stuff either. This helpful Magic Pencil does your homework, while the Magic Pillow sends you pleasant dreams of puppies and ice cream (although what a witch would find pleasant about either of those things is beyond me).

This pet dragon seems like a reasonable deal...

(If you thought you saw some of the bigger kids smoking from a dragon-shaped pipe after school, this might explain it. )

Until you add on all the extras...

So how exactly do you order this stuff? This page explains. Note the all-caps disclaimer regarding the order form: "DO NOT FILL IT OUT! DO NOT TAKE IT OUT OF THE CATALOG!" Yea...especially if you don't want to get an angry note sent home from the school librarian.

The "order form" is only a few inches wide (only slightly larger than it appears in this scanned image) and the text is deliberately obscured to prevent anyone from producing an actual copy. Because what if someone really did successfully recreate the order form, rub it with bat fat and flea tears, hide it in a hollow tree, and then never actually received their pet dragon? Lawsuit!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Darkroom (1981, Episodes 6-7)

This post is 4th and final in a series describing the episodes of the 1981 anthology horror series Darkroom. Previous installments found here, here and here.

We're now at the final two episodes, and I'm sad to say, there isn't much to recommend about any of the 5 stories found here. These definitely rank as the worst of the series, and accordingly, they'll receive briefer coverage.

SPOILER ALERT! Episode summaries to follow!
EPISODE 6 - Lost in Translation / Guillotine

In "Lost in Translation", professor of archeology Dr. Paul Hudson hires a translator to help him decode an ancient Egyptian scroll, which turns out to contain a recipe for a magic potion thought to give one power.

But after mixing and drinking the potion, we realize there was a mistake made in the translation as Dr. Hudson shrinks to the size of a mouse.

The second story, "Guillotine", spends a long time building up to a ho-hum "surprise" ending.

In 19th century France, a man sentenced to die by guillotine hopes to exploit a loophole in the law that pardons the condemned should the executioner happen to die on the scheduled day of execution. I won't bore you with every laborous detail (this episode just really seems to drag). The prisoner's lover poisons the executioner, but he summons just enough strength to stagger to the guillotine at the scheduled time, only to drop dead on the platform.

But wait--his dying body actually falls upon the lever that activates the guillotine, so the prisoner is executed after all.

EPISODE 7 - Exit Line / Who's There? / The Rarest of Wines

The first story in the final episode, "Exit Line", is simply awful. An actor who feels he's gotten an unfair review from a critic decides the best way to convince the critic that he really is a good actor is to... are you ready for this? ...sneak into her apartment, cut her phone cord, then threaten her with a gun for 10 minutes or so before taking a bow and revealing that he's only ACTING!!! The shocker ending, such as it were, is that the critic nails him over the head with a heavy crystal bottle before he has a chance to explain himself.

Next up is "Who's There?", which doesn't amount to much, despite the reuniting of actors Grant Goodeve and Dianne Kay, who had just finished a five-year run playing brother and sister on Eight Is Enough.

Here they play lovers Steve and Claire. Steve lives just downstairs from Claire and her husband Barry. While Claire is off visiting her mother, Steve comes upstairs to find Barry waiting in the dark with a pistol. He's convinced Claire is cheating on him and plans to murder her when she gets home. When Steve returns to his apartment, we find Claire is not at her mother's, but in his bed. With the doubt planted in his head, Steve begins to suspect Claire may be cheating on him as well. He sends her back upstairs to her apartment, and waiting doom.

Finally comes "The Rarest of Wines". An obnoxious son is unhappy with his share of his mother's inheritance...the family house and its furnishings. He sells everything he can and spends the money on rare and expensive wines.

While drinking one of the wines, his sister translates the Italian label to discover too late that the wine he is drinking is poisonous.

That wraps up the Darkroom episode summaries. Unfortunately the series has never been available for sale. I would love to see a proper DVD release of this series. In the meantime, bootleg copies can be had if you look under the right rock.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Darkroom (1981, Episode 5)

This post is 3rd in a series describing the episodes of the 1981 anthology horror series Darkroom. Previous installments found here and here.

SPOILER ALERT! Episode summaries to follow!
EPISODE 5 - The Partnership / Daisies / Catnip

Episode 5 is the first of two episodes containing three segments instead of the usual two. The first story, "The Partnership", is one of my favorites.

Not that there's anything particularly unique (or even original) about this simple little story, but it worked for me as a kid and still does today. Based on a story by William F. Nolan, (whose screenwriting credits include Trilogy of Terror and Burnt Offerings), "The Partnership" centers on local chatterbox Tad Miller (Pat Buttram) who strikes up a conversation with a drifter, played by David Carradine, at a roadside diner.

Tad volunteers his life story to the uninterested Carradine, who is just trying to find a ride to the next town. Seems that, among other things, Tad used to operate the local lakeside amusement park, Happyland, which has been closed and shuttered for years. This sparks the drifter's interest. Tad convinces him to go on an after-hours exploration of the ruined amusement park, dangling the promise of giving him a ride out of town if he agrees.

Happyland is a dilapidated wreck of a fun park, boarded up and covered in cobwebs. Tad leads Carradine by lantern light into the old funhouse.

When Carradine cuts himself on a nail, Tad is a little too eager to run back to the truck to fetch a bandage, leaving Carradine alone in the spooky hall of mirrors.

But Tad isn't detouring to his truck, but to a secret control room, where he triggers a trapdoor that sends Carradine down a chute and through the floor, dropping him into the lake below.

A tentacled sea-creature with two glowing eyes closes in on Carradine as he splashes helplessly in the dark water.

Seems "the partnership" of the title is an arrangement between Tad and the creature. The creature crushes its prey with its tentacles and deposits the corpse on the shore, where Tad loots the corpse of any valuables before turning it over to be eaten by the beast.

The next segment, "Daisies", is only a few minutes long.

A scientist is studying the ability of plants to communicate via electronic impulses. He gives his visiting wife a headset and special microphone to allow her to listen to the flowers in his lab.

The flowers immediately rat out the husband, who has been cheating on her with his lab assistant. She pulls a revolver and murders them both on the spot.

The final segment, "Catnip", is based on a story by Robert Bloch.

Ronny, a veteran turned street thug, crosses paths with a black cat that belongs to a neighborhood witch.

After a few run-ins with the cat and being scolded by the witch, Ronny decides to take revenge by rigging a small explosive to its pet-door.

But the explosive unintentionally kills the witch instead.

The cat starts showing up everywhere Ronny goes, finally following him to his home, where it leaps through the bedroom window and hides under the bed.

In one of the creepiest moments of the series, Ronny peeks under the bed to look for the cat...

...only to be confronted with the twisting, hissing head of the witch!

Not so tough now, are we Ronny?

The final two episodes will be detailed in next post.