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On The Nickel

A cruel sun broke hard over the city skyline, giving no quarter to the hope of a gentle birth to this new day. Ripples of heat shimmered along the pavement, releasing the acrid stink of urine that carpeted the ground with a low-lying fog and in the tents, lean-tos, cardboard boxes and draped tarps, life rumbled and coughed, stretched and farted, sneezed and cursed, as Fifth Street awakened, or at least regained consciousness from having survived another long, desperate night. Soon, the air was filled with shouts and accusations, cries and curses, the language of poverty’s jungle.

Crows sat upon the power lines overhead, cawing their accusations, their judgments, to whatever ears might be listening, fixing their eyes on the sleek, glistening rats that meandered through the gutter, picking through the accumulated garbage for a few scraps of food. The crows watched the rats intently; if a choice piece of anything looked promising, they would drop down and take what was theirs. If the rats didn’t scatter, they might find themselves plucked from the earth and taken for food, for the crows knew to take a rat high, so high, and then simply let go. After gravity had taken its turn, the burst-open carcass made for a fine breakfast.

On the Row, or The Nickel, as it was called, there was no easy transition from night to day, no gentle awakening; rather, the scramble for sustenance began anew, for there were aching bellies to be fed, and dangerous habits demanded attention, life-or-death cravings that demanded fulfillment, needs that must be sustained, old grudges and hurts that defied time and reason, that started anew, their pain and resentment digging ever deeper into the shattered mind of the bearer.

In amongst the maze of makeshift habitats, inside an old military surplus tent that seemed impossibly old, Crying Mary blinked away the crusted dirt at the corners of her eyes, although she hadn’t slept. She lay under a filthy blanket, sweating already as the morning sun turned the canvas shelter into a convection oven, her head resting on the chest of the man lying next to her, rising and falling with his fitful breathing, listening to the staccato rhythm of his heart, her hand tracing an intricate and familiar pattern on the bare skin of his abdomen, fingernails wet with blood as she quietly, calmly, dug into him, so gently as to not disturb his restless slumber. Her nails, so sharp, passing through each layer of skin, then into the spongy yellow fat, pausing for a moment before making her way into the tougher muscle.

As with most drifters this man, whatever his name, had a fair amount of muscle hidden below the fat, the result of so many fights and flights, decades of hard living, and countless beatings. This was a man who had slept on concrete for much of his life, whether on the street or in a cell, and living like this toughens a person, makes the meat rich and dark. The man stirred, his brow furrowed as if in concentration or, more likely, the feeling that something wasn’t quite right, but had yet to announce itself. Mary froze in place, eyes open and watching his face, looking to see if he would awaken and, in doing so, ruining this most intimate of moments. For what he had done with her that night, for what he had done to her, he had earned this many times over. Soon enough, he settled back into slumber and she continued.

Her fingernails like scalpels, Mary slipped through the striated layers of muscle, delicately working her hand into his abdominal cavity, feeling his warmth, his electricity, her forearm gradually disappearing into him as she gently, so very gently, made her way upward to the center of his being, the engine of his damnable machine. Delicately, with all the care of a mother cradling her newborn, her fingers encircled his heart.

It was then that Crying Mary smiled, an unsettling sight under the best of circumstances. Her long, dark hair was matted and wild, as though it had never known comb or brush. Falling from the corners of both eyes were tattooed teardrops, too many to count, cascading down her cheeks like rain, jailhouse tattoos from an eternity of transgressions, thousands of nights spent without sight of the moon, the screams and cries of other inmates poorly taking the place of the crickets and bullfrogs of her youth, so many lifetimes ago. Opinions on Mary’s tears varied: some said each tear represented a prison stay, while others claimed the tears indicated lives taken, while still others claimed that the tears were symbolic of much darker deeds, things that go unmentioned even among this salty and seasoned group of travelers. That each tear was a different color only added to the depth of the impromptu mythology that had sprouted up around her.

One thing upon which all agreed was that one would never dare look directly at Crying Mary’s tears; to do so, it was rumored, would wreak a fate worse than those who dared gaze upon Medusa, that turning to stone would be preferable to being caught staring, and to stare would be the most common and understandable reaction to seeing Mary, especially for the first time. To add to matters, Mary stood well over six feet and her man, the whereabouts of whom was also cause for great speculation, was rumored to stand even taller. Some, who claimed to have met him, said in hushed whispers that Dead Henry, as he was called, was older than time, and others murmured that he himself was a demon, ejected from Hell for being too wicked.

Mary’s face also carried scars, as did her left arm, from a night long ago when two frat boys on a dare, drove into the Row, and looked for a homeless person to set fire to. For their sins, they had made the mistake of picking Mary, whose peace had been interrupted with the sharp stink of gasoline, a moment before the match dropped. She had burned, but her pain was nothing compared to the hell she unleashed upon the drunken boys. She had lost her mind during her assault on them, and had landed in the county mental ward for almost a year, all but braindead under the barrage of drugs being pumped into her system. Eventually she was pronounced ‘better,’ and released back onto the streets, all of which led, as they always will, to the Nickel. Still homeless, burned and broken, still alone, in a state of drug-induced psychosis.

In moments like this, Crying Mary’s heart longed for Henry, a yearning that stretched across a broken landscape of miles and an ocean of tears, and when she took a person, as she was about to, it was bittersweet in that she would not be able to share it with him. She was stronger than any ten men, and never forgot this simple truth; however, she felt incomplete without Henry, he was the one who made it all make sense. One day, she told herself.

One day.

Her fingers wrapped around the sleeping man’s heart, and she tugged lightly, causing him to stir. As his eyes opened and looked toward her, Mary stroked his forehead with her free hand, whispering quietly to him.

“Let this be a day of wonder, as I make this sacrifice to myself and my kin and as this man finds his way to the other side, let him know the true meaning of pain and fear, that I have held his heart and known the darkness it hides, that I have seen the things he has done, and that what comes next he has earned many times over.”

The man’s eyes opened wide at her words, the cold reality slicing through his mind, through the hazy years of drugs and booze, with a sobriety that shocked and horrified him. “Hey, wait – you wanted that stuff, you said so, afterward at least. I just did what you told me.”

“Hush now,” Crying Mary said, a beatific smile gracing her face. “This is what happens; it’s already done.”

She delicately slipped her middle finger between the aorta and pulmonary artery, gripped firmly and, with a single, savage motion, tore the man’s heart from his chest. When she held it before his eyes, it was still beating. “Your poorly-lived life can still have value,” she said quietly as comprehension dawned in the man’s eyes, even as the light of life faded from them.

Mary stuffed the dead man’s heart into her mouth and chewed vigorously, swallowing whole chunks as if it were the first food she’d had in years, as blood spilled from her lips and down her chin, savoring the coppery taste upon her tongue. As quickly as it had begun, it was over.

Later, after Mary had packed him away in a dumpster and rolled up her tent, she stood on the stained and filthy sidewalk of Skid Row, breathing deeply and tasting myriad scents that the street offered up, dark and delightful, reeking and filled with sin. She stuffed her tent deep into the shopping cart she used to carry her belongings and, for a moment, looked up at the crows perched on the power lines above, and winked while pressing a bloody finger to her lips.

Singing quietly off-key to herself, Crying Mary shuffled down the street, pushing the cart in front of her, into the bright light of a new day.

“Sticks and stones will break my bones, but I always will be true, and when your mama’s dead and gone, I’ll sing this lullaby just for you…”

maxresdefaultA once-fabulous mansion in decline, its worn vestiges of better times heartbreakingly reflected in the deep shadows of its spider-webbed corners. A large 1930s home in a quiet, upscale suburb, hiding a lifetime of pain and dark secrets. The sprawling landscape of Hollywood is littered with broken dreams and ruined lives; the never-were scrambling for a chance at making their mark, while the has-beens fall into obscurity, earning, at best, a footnote in the clutter of contemporary American culture.

The movie industry is a particularly cruel business; everyone involved is just one flop, one bad review, away from ruin, a concept that most of us will never understand. We live our lives within our small circle of friends and family and, except in cases of abuse or neglect, that is where we stay: unknown to most, close to a few, in simple, manageable lives. For those who have tasted and enjoyed stardom, however, to be unknown is akin to being dead, but without the relative comfort of eternal rest and a marker at Forest Lawn.

In Billy Wilder’s masterpiece Sunset Boulevard (1950), struggling writer Joe Gillis makes a fateful turn into a driveway while evading repo men, and finds himself propelled into the world of Norma Desmond, once the darling of film’s silent era, “the greatest star of them all,” as she puts it. As happened with countless others, Desmond’s career came to an abrupt end when the film industry changed over to talking pictures.

Protected from the outside world by the remains of her fortune and her loyal servant Max, Norma Desmond surrounds herself with memories, both real and imagined, blissfully unaware that she is all but forgotten in 1950 Hollywood. Seeing an opportunity with the young writer who falls into her life, Norma plots her return to the silver screen, with a script she has spent the last several decades writing. Gillis sees in Norma Desmond a chance to make some money and get ahead of his debts, because her script is, predictably, awful, not least because the fifty-one-year-old actress wants to play the role of Salome herself, despite the three-decade gap in age.

In her efforts to defy the advancement of time, Norma surrounds herself with past associates from the silent era, diligently applying her makeup to stave off the evidence of age, and re-watching her old films, night after night. Her sense of fashion is thirty years out of date, and we readily see that she is living in a time capsule, a safe place far from the world that has long since forgotten her. She is as much a prisoner in her world as Joe Gillis, bound by her delusions and an intricate web of dependency and lies, as real as the fan letters she continues to receive.

Gillis soon finds himself a captive in Norma’s world, seduced by the gifts she lavishes upon him, the convenience that her money provides. He becomes essentially a kept man, unable to break away for the sake of Norma’s fragile grip on her version of reality, as he discovers that his benefactor’s sanity is a delicate balancing act, enabled and supported by Max, and the secrets that bind them. Norma Desmond desires is to be back in the spotlight, on the screen, to beg for the acceptance and forgiveness of the fans that she left so long ago, and incapable of accepting that time continued marching forward and she has been all but forgotten. When she is ultimately faced with the terrible truth, tragedy naturally prevails, as inevitably as night follows day.

As Norma Desmond, Gloria Swanson gives the performance of a lifetime, and an ironic one as well. Swanson, who had been Paramount’s top star for six straight years during the silent era, had retired from film and moved to New York, where she worked in radio, and later, television. Swanson, however, understood that her time in film had passed, and was comfortable with this knowledge. It is notable that numerous silent film stars had been invited to a screening of Sunset Boulevard, and gave Swanson a standing ovation at the film’s end.

Sunset Boulevard holds a brutal mirror up to Hollywood, daring it to look itself in the eye and acknowledge its complicity in the using and discarding of lives, giving no support or counsel to those who fight the tide, or whose demons won’t go unheard.

Robert Aldrich’s film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962), further examines the phenomena of those whom the world once adored, but then discarded, in a story as dark as Sunset Boulevard, but with the added elements of sibling warfare and toxic co-dependency.

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In 1917, Baby Jane Hudson is the darling of the vaudeville stage, while her sister Blanche watches from the sidelines, seething with resentment while their father gives all his love and attention to the spoiled, tyrannical Jane. By 1935, both sisters are working in Hollywood, but it is Blanche who is now the star while Jane has nothing but failure, despite Blanche’s demand that for every film she makes, the studio must make one for Jane as well. A drunken car crash leaves Blanche confined to a wheelchair, with Jane as her caretaker. Jane’s failure has turned her into a bitter lush, and whose grip on reality has become tenuous at best. By 1962, their already difficult relationship has turned dangerous: Jane’s psychosis has become more delusional and violent, while Blanche seems to have all but surrendered to her demented sister. As sibling dysfunction and the realities of aging pile up, the sisters rush headlong into an inevitable confrontation in which secrets and lies come to light, leaving neither woman untouched.

Each sister carries her own demons and responsibility for the events that have led them to this place in time, and neither is completely innocent. Davis plays Jane as a grotesquerie, a monstrous, raging gargoyle that dresses as she did in her childhood heyday, heavily piling on makeup in a vain attempt at covering the ravages of failure, alcohol, and hateful spite. There is, however, a delicate sorrow to her character, of which we are given glimpses as the story progresses. Jane Hudson has become a lost soul; forty-five years have passed since she was a star, and she appears to have no idea how the time has passed, and the damage it has done to her, forever trapped in the mind of a petulant, over-indulged child. It is a tour-de-force performance for Davis, which won her a well-deserved Academy Award nomination.

Crawford, on the other hand, imbues Blanche with an almost noble, quiet dignity, enduring Jane’s viciousness with the grace and compassion that we would think could only come from true caring. Blanche is the rational adult of the two, looking out for Jane even as Jane’s attacks become increasingly violent and disturbing. We learn that while she wants to sell their house and find a place where Jane can receive the care that she needs, Blanche doesn’t appear to have any plans for herself, so deep is the love that she seems to have for her troubled sister. With time, we come to realize that Blanche may not be as loving and altruistic as she appears, and that deep secrets and hostility run on both sides of their bitter divide, and that this is perhaps a shared family trait, with neither sister having exclusive ownership of bitterness.

 At the heart of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? lies a story of family, and the damage that family can inflict upon itself. Who would put up with Jane’s constant abuse, if not a family member? Who would take charge of Blanche’s needs, if not a sibling? While these are admirable traits, family can oftentimes be a source of great discomfort and frustration, causing more pain than any stranger ever could, and enduring abuse that we would accept from no one. Family can be a fine and wonderful thing; it can also be a nightmare of dysfunction and heartbreak.

Like Sunset Boulevard, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? examines the lament of the forgotten; whenever Jane is out in public, she compulsively asks whomever she is talking to if they know who she is, seemingly unaware of how much time has passed since she was popular, and dreams of returning to her former glory in a world that has moved on without her, in much the same way as Norma Desmond, but without the funds, direction, or backhanded support that Desmond enjoyedJane and Blanche Hudson are prisoners in their lives as much as Norma Desmond, their horrors are what connects them to us, and make no mistake: these are both horror films. The horror of growing old and being forgotten, of having no control over one’s life, of all-consuming, soul-destroying resentment and rage, of losing oneself to madness. The monsters in this film are very real, and all the more horrifying because of their familiarity to people we might know.

The streets and graveyards of Hollywood are filled with the lost and forgotten, those who couldn’t make the transition from from child star to adulthood, from silent to talkies, who had their shot at stardom and blew it, who never had a chance or a prayer, with no clue what to do as time marches mercilessly forward, and no protector to save them from themselves. Sunset Boulevard and Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? are harsh indictments against an industry that prizes youth and beauty above all else, but it is also a judgment against us, the audience, for our capricious willingness to discard those whose dreams, whose desires, are to gain our acceptance and love, to make a name for themselves by making a place in our hearts.

 

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In the pursuit of examining any significant era in filmmaking, and perhaps horror films in particular, one must first gain an understanding of the time in which it happened, as history provides context. Without context, films are merely images on a screen, events without meaning and while they may still evoke an emotional response, we don’t truly understand the depth, the scope, of the emotions.

When the First World War came to an end in 1918, the Treaty of Versailles, dated 28 June 1919, required Germany, which had been defeated by the Allied Forces, to “Accept the responsibility of Germany and her allies for causing all the loss and damage” incurred during the war. In addition, Germany was forced to disarm, make territorial concessions, and pay reparations for damages caused to the civilian populations of the Allied nations and their properties. As with any event in which countries seek to make demands of those they vanquish, it is often the general population that has the least involvement, yet pays the highest price.

In other words, Germany was defeated, humiliated, and broke, left in a state of social, economic, and political bedlam. The reparations demand placed a heavy burden on the economy, leading to a period of hyperinflation, during which the value of German Mark plummeted and came close to ruining the country’s economy. The average citizens had no choice in the matter, no options they could exercise; rather, they were forced to make difficult sacrifices, which led to unrest and suspicion of convenient scapegoats, which ultimately set in motion the events that would, in 1933, bring about the rise of the Third Reich.

 The generation of artists who came of age during this turbulent time were quick to assign blame on the preceding generation’s values and ideals; gone were the traditional notions of beauty and art, replaced by darkness, violence, and the emotional chaos felt by many in the post-war years. On painters’ canvasses and on motion picture screens, cities were in ruins, with their denizens lost in inescapable states of fear, rage, and paranoia. By an odd turn of events, Germany’s embargo against imported films caused a boom for its own motion picture industry, as the populace clamored for entertainment and distractions. Rather than offering fantasy-laden escapist fare, filmmakers chose to express the inner angst and confusion of the times in a stark and surreal fashion, creating films in which the inner turmoil spreads radially, concocting a world of distorted angles, deep shadows, and altered perception where no one, despite their alleged social standing, was immune from corruption.

cabinet-of-dr.-caligariAgainst this dark and emotionally brutal background, director Robert Wiene unleashed The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920), the story of a traveling carnival, and one of its attractions, a somnambulist named Cesare (Conrad Veidt) who can answer questions about the future while in his sleepwalking state. Cesare is controlled by the mysterious Dr Caligari (Werner Krauss), whose motives may be far more sinister than providing mere carnival tricks. Cesare ventures out into the world at the hypnotic behest of his master, performing whatever tasks are demanded of him. It is within these scenes that Caligari is at its most masterful; surely, the idea of being completely controlled by another person, while in a sleeping state when one is at their most vulnerable, has been the subject of countless nightmares for untold generations, and calls to question the very sanity of existence. Indeed, insanity is a significant component not just in Dr Caligari, but in many films of the German Expressionist era.

As the tale of Dr Caligari plays out, it sheds many layers. When one believes they have the story puzzled out, it changes; the rug is pulled out from under the viewer so many times that it becomes difficult to accept the reality of anything projected on the screen. This may have been the ultimate goal of expressionist cinema: the disorientation of the viewer and the total immersion into a world at once disturbingly alien and yet eerily familiar.

Dr Caligari is a landmark work in the field of motion pictures; the actors are grotesquely made up and move in unnatural ways, making them appear at times to be controlled by unseen puppeteers (as many of the time no doubt felt, completely out of control of their own lives and destinies), while the sets are abstract and exaggerated, reflecting the ravaged landscape and emotional turmoil of postwar Germany. Shell-shocked and reeling from the devastating effects of war, it is not unreasonable to believe that many moviegoers felt a warped kinship with the sleepwalker as Caligari directs his every step. The effect of these efforts is that the viewer cannot help but to be drawn in, to experience the nightmare on a personal level, for the simple reason that there is no semblance of normalcy to cling to. In the expressionist world of Dr Caligari, nothing is as it seems, and no one is innocent.

Wiene’s unprecedented use of light and shadow was revolutionary for its time, providing a virtual blueprint for the horror and film noir genres that would soon find their genesis in Hollywood, particularly as German filmmakers would flee the country in ensuing years, as right-wing fanaticism gained a foothold and horrors far worse than those in films arose to lead Germany into unfathomable darkness.

By most estimates, the Expressionist era lasted seven to ten years, but its trademarks of anti-heroes, moral ambiguity, and inescapable human darkness have endured and earned a much-deserved place in the canon of filmmaking and film history.

The films of the Expressionist period struck a discordant resonance with audiences, even if they weren’t quite able to explain what exactly moved them. The psychological currents of a nation in decline were writ large upon the movie screen, and people turned out to see the elements that came to define the movement: anti-heroes, an underworld populated by criminals, madness, paranoia, and extreme use of light and shadow, to name but a few. While films of this time generally relied upon exaggerated sets that mirrored the chaos of the story and its characters, one film stood out for its use of locations that conveyed the same themes, and while its story took place in the preceding century, it came to define not just a style of filmmaking, but also a primary mythos of horror films, the rules of which are still followed to this day.

NosferatuShadowNosferatu (1922), FW Murnau’s film about a vampire was almost lost to history; the story was taken from Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Stoker’s widow went to court to have the film destroyed. All prints were burned, save but one, which had been traveling abroad. Without that single print, the film would be a mysterious footnote in history, not unlike London After Midnight (1927), all prints of which are believed to be lost.

Nosferatu illustrates the growing of sense national xenophobia in a clever fashion; its antagonist, the vampire Count Orlock (Max Schreck) is shown as a beady-eyed, hooked-nosed, leering monster that sleeps in a box filled with dirt, and seeks to relocate from his home in Transylvania. This portrayal reflects the fears of many Germans, who were seeing immigrants pouring into the country with strange customs and unfamiliar appearances, bringing with them their money and religions, and the threat of their blood mingling with that of the German people. With these factors in mind, there is little wonder why this film was a success. In this landmark work of horror, the vampire, like the rats it sleeps with, is vermin, a literal plague carrier. It is no coincidence that vampiric folklore appears to have found its roots in Europe during the Black Death, and were vampires were suspected of being the source of the plague that claimed an estimated seventy-five to two-hundred million people in the fourteenth century. In a genre filled with beautiful, sensual and, perhaps most horrifyingly, sparkling vampires, it is important to realize that the cinematic birth of the undead bloodsucker shows it as a parasitic rodent.

The-Hands-of-Orlac-insideIn 1924, Robert Wiene and Conrad Veidt (The Cabinet of Dr Caligari) re-teamed for The Hands of Orlac, which tells the story of a concert pianist who loses his hands in an accident, only to have them surgically replaced with the hands of an executed killer. Orlac (Veidt) cannot play the piano with his new hands, but soon learns that the hands still carry their previous owner’s urge to kill. The feeling that one no longer has control over one’s own body or mind, coupled with advances in medical science, fueled fears over the loss of self in the midst of a changing world over which the individual had no control, are archetypal of the era. Orlac, while an Austrian production, is nonetheless considered an important film of the Expressionist movement.

As the 1920s progressed, the themes expressed within the Expressionist era became more pronounced, as the gap between the privileged and the poor grew ever-wider, and the nation teetered closer to a breakdown, nowhere was this disparity been documented as spectacularly as in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece, Metropolis (1927).

300007-metropolis_productionstill_300dpi_09While wealthy industrialists and their children live and play in aboveground luxury, the masses toil below, working at the machines that provide power for the city, in subhuman conditions. To die from exhaustion is a common occurrence, but a minor inconvenience, as there are always more ready and willing to enslave themselves to the machines. A chance occurrence leads a young man of privilege to see the world that exists just beneath his feet and it is from this revelation that the young man fights to bring the rich and poor together.

The story of Metropolis echoes the desire of the industrialists who sought to overthrow the postwar Weimar Republic, and the working and unemployed classes who were left with no choice but to float along in their wake, assured of nothing but a future filled with uncertainty. Unfortunately, the collapse of the Republic led to the ascendency of failed artist and former prisoner (sentenced for treason) Adolf Hitler, whose rise to power would effectively bring an end to the already fading Expressionist movement, and ushering in an new era of unimaginable horror, forcing scores artists and filmmakers to flee their homeland. Not coincidentally, many German filmmakers found a new home in Hollywood.

the-last-will-of-dr-mabuse-aka-le-everett1933: Fritz Lang, acclaimed director of Metropolis (1927) and Dr Mabuse the Gambler (1922) finds that his latest film, The Testament of Dr Mabuse, has been banned by Joseph Goebbels, the Minister of Propaganda under Adolph Hitler, stating that the film would be a menace to public health and safety, because it “showed that an extremely dedicated group of people are perfectly capable of overthrowing any state with violence.” Goebbels was, however, impressed enough by Metropolis that he extended to Lang the opportunity to make films for the Nazi party, which caused him to flee to Paris that night, according to Lang, although this accounting has been questioned.

Whatever the case, the tide in Germany was turning, and it comes as no surprise that many of the first casualties of the rise of the Third Reich would be the artists, those who were able to communicate complex ideas to the masses; truly a terrifying ability in the eyes of those who sought to control those same masses. Starting around 1933, directors and actors Karl Freund, Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls, Curt Siodmak, Marlene Dietrich, Hedy Lamarr, Paul Henreid, Peter Lorre, Edgar Ulmer, and Douglas Sirk, to name but a few, emigrated to the United States due to a ban, by Goebbels, of all non-Aryan film professionals whose politics or lifestyles were considered unacceptable by the Nazi Party.

The flood of immigrants into Hollywood would have far-reaching effects on American filmmaking, particularly in the realm of horror films. Carl Laemmle, a German Jew who immigrated to the United States in 1884, founded Universal Studios in 1915. By the 1920s, Universal was making a name for itself in horror, with the legendary Lon Chaney proving to be a vital draw for the company with such films as The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925). In 1928, Laemmle gave his son, Carl Jr, Universal Studios as a twenty-first birthday gift. Carl Jr went to work creating what is now known as the Universal Horror era, releasing Dracula and Frankenstein (both 1931), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), The Wolf Man (1941), and many others. Many of these now-classic films contain vital elements of the Expressionist style, such as heavy use of light and shadow, disfigurement, mental instability, mad science, loss of identity, and flawed antiheroes.

003-sunrise-theredlistFW Murnau, director of Nosferatu, immigrated to the United States and was immediately put to work directing the silent masterpiece Sunrise, A Song of Two Humans (1927), which is widely considered to be one of the greatest films ever made, winning three Academy Awards in the Academy’s first ceremony. Sunrise makes use of the mise-en-scene, a common element of Expressionist cinema, to ‘bring’ the audience into the picture, utilizing all aspects of the shot, from sets, composition, costumes, music, and performances, all carefully composed to convey a specific message; in this case, the mise-en-scene takes the viewer into the heart and mind of a man and woman’s affair, which may lead to a devastating outcome.

Flicker_coverOf the homages to the German Expressionism movement, particular attention must be paid to Theodore Roszak’s 1991 novel Flicker, which takes the art of the era to a sinister level. Flicker is the story of Max Castle, a fictional German filmmaker who immigrated to the United States, making Poverty-Row movies, few prints of which still exist. Castle’s films utilize the darkness of shadows and the gap between frames (the ‘flicker’) of motion picture prints to install subliminal images that could, if the lost and missing films are seen, bring about tragedy of an apocalyptic scale, perhaps echoing the concerns of those who sought to ban such ‘subversive’ films in real life. Meticulous in detail and message, Flicker is a dense, disturbing, and fascinating look at the power of filmmaking, and an absolute must-read for any enthusiast of cinema.

The impact of the Expressionist movement upon American and international cinema is immeasurable, with countless films, from The Third Man (1949) to Blade Runner (1982) to music videos (Rob Zombie’s Living Dead Girl is a loving tribute to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari,) owing much of their appeal, aesthetics, and emotional impact to a filmic movement created by a post-war desire for humiliation and blame-laying, and fueled by the rise of a nationalist fascist dictator.

thestandjpg-7125d8_1280wIn his epic 1978 novel The Stand, Stephen King killed everything. An intensely aggressive form of influenza is accidentally released from a government research facility and one panicked guard escapes before quarantine is initiated. The guard spreads the plague, which grows exponentially, until 99.4% of the population is dead. Those who remain are alone or in splintered groups scattered across the United States, with a common thread. Many of them begin to have dreams: some dream of a kindly old woman in Nebraska, while others see a dark man in Las Vegas. Drifting aimlessly around the corpse of America, the paths of survivors eventually intersect and when it is realized that they are having the same dreams, the groups decide to travel to one of the two dreamed-about locations. The battle lines are being drawn; the time has come for humanity to make its stand, in the final war of good against evil.

While the story is one of survival in a radically changed landscape, it is also one of humanity lost and humanity found; each of the nearly thirty main and incidental characters faces a choice at some point in his or her journey, and it is these choices that ultimately dictate where they will land. The central protagonist, an East Texan called Stu Redman, is a good ol’ boy whose life is marked by tragedy and regret, and his mysterious immunity to the disease unfortunately lands him in a government research facility, located in Vermont. His experience in quarantine is truly nightmarish and through Redman, the reader is subjected to the horrors of isolation and confinement, of having no say in the course of one’s life, instead subjected to the poking and prodding of scientists who have no answer for his resistance to the illness. A frightening parallel could be made to the experiences of those who were subjected to imprisoned in concentration camps, whose minds and bodies were completely controlled by doctors whose motives were less than humane.

Other central characters include a rock star whose self-centered ways may be his ruination, a young expectant mother, a high-school boy whose resentment over being an outcast at school guides him bitterly but, in the new post-plague world, he has the chance to reinvent himself, provided he can leave the past behind. A sociology professor, a troubled woman with a dark secret, a developmentally disabled man, a young deaf-mute, a petty criminal, a schizophrenic pyromaniac, and numerous others round out a diverse cast, each of which have a past to contend with, and a future to decide.

While the characters are well-developed, as is common with King’s work, two particularly stand out: Harold Lauder, a sixteen-year-old whose intelligence and social awkwardness made him an outcast in the pre-plague world, and Donald Merwin Elbert (aka “Trashcan Man”), the aforementioned pyromaniac whose own troubled past appears inescapable and guides his actions, even when salvation is at hand. Like Arnie Cunningham in Christine, these two characters are incredibly well-written, both having significant paternal issues and episodes of being bullied and tormented at school, and the rage that fuels the actions of each. These characters are essential to the King canon, being possible extensions of his own childhood; indeed, bullies appear in nearly all of King’s works, and the ends that come to many of them reinforce the possibility that King may have been cathartically working out some issues.

Although published thirty-five years ago (with an extended version released in 1990, The Stand is eerily prescient with its themes of nuclear and biological warfare, governmental bungling, religious fanaticism, and police-state imagery. It is a cautionary tale for the ages, inviting the reader into an all-too real America in which each person must wade through their personal nightmares and pasts, and decide whether to take a stand, to make a claim for their own life and the direction in which they choose to take it.

In 1979, the paperback edition of The Stand noted that the book was soon to be made into a film by George Romero (Night of the Living Dead); however, after languishing in development for years, Romero dropped out and the plans were scuttled. In 1994, The Stand aired on television as an eight-hour (about six hours without commercials), four-part miniseries.

Long-time fans of King’s masterwork were split on their opinions, and for valid reasons: important characters were eliminated, unnecessarily changed or combined with others, plotlines were altered or abandoned, and the casting of actors was wildly uneven, ranging from brilliant to absurd. Fans rejoiced in the casting of Gary Sinise as Stu Redman, Ray Walston as Glen Bateman, Bill Fagerbakke as Tom Cullen; the decision to have Rob Lowe portray Nick Andros was at first curious, but worked out well, while casting Matt Frewer as Trashcan Man was absolute, demented genius. However, the project was bogged down by the unfortunate casting of Molly Ringwald and Corin Nemec as Frannie Goldsmith and Harold Lauder, Laura San Giacomo as Nadine Cross, Miguel Ferrer as Lloyd Henreid, and Jamey Sheridan as Randall Flagg, the Dark Man. Ferrer was completely wrong for the part of the gullible, criminal man-child; Nemec carried none of Harold’s toxic rage or inner conflict; Ringwald made Frannie whining and weak, San Giacomo bumbled around, seemingly lost and, worst of all, Sheridan turned Flagg, the embodiment of death and destruction, possibly the Antichrist, into a leering caricature more suited for a soap opera.

The horrifying set pieces from the novel appear restricted by the small screen both in scope and in budget, their terror muted and sanitized for a general audience, and even the final confrontation, in which an enormous, angry mob draws together for a show trial, a final reckoning, during which all present must decide which side they stand on, comes off as a small gathering, carrying none of the gravity that it could and should have. Budgeted at twenty-eight million dollars (US), there simply wasn’t enough money to make The Stand as grand as it should have been, and eight hours did not give enough time to bring the book truly to life. Additionally, the sensibilities of 1994 did not allow ABC Television the freedom to bring much of The Stand’s horror and grimness to life, and many of the book’s themes were downplayed or muddled. Still, ABC made what appears to be an earnest attempt and, given the constraints under which they were working, one can forgive some of the decisions that were made.

That said, it has been reported that that Warner Brothers and CBS Films are developing a feature-length film adaptation of The Stand, and that it may be produced as a trilogy of films, with Ben Affleck at the helm. Given his recent run of successes and rebirth as a serious player in Hollywood, The Stand may yet make a transition to screen that will not only satisfy its lifelong fans, but also spur the uninitiated into taking on the dark nightmare of King’s epic masterpiece. The recent casting of Matthew McConaughey as the Main in Black (Randall Flagg)  in the big-screen adaptation of King’s Dark Tower, has many fans hoping that he will carry the role over to the new telling of The Stand; this writer thinks it would be a perfect match.

9f4768b4bd4a205e1d3a60398ab022a2_567x210There is a special kind of magic when a guy gets his first car; it’s a feeling of liberation, of freedom, to climb in and just take off. The mysterious allure of the open road, the siren song of several hundred horses under the hood and a tiger in the tank, rocketing into the future without a care in the world. There is a darker side as well, that of squealing brakes and crushing metal, the bitter sting of humiliation, shattered dreams, and innocence torn asunder. Of love betrayed and forever lost.

These are the central themes of Stephen King’s Christine (1983), in which Arnie Cunningham purchases his first car, a broken-down 1958 Plymouth Fury, against the wishes of his parents and against the advice of his best and only friend, Dennis Guilder. Arnie is portrayed as a quintessential high school nerd, scrawny and pimple-faced, constantly harassed by the school bullies, invisible to the opposite sex. As Arnie gets to work on restoring the car, which he names Christine, the visible changes to the car causes a metamorphosis in Arnie; the blemishes disappear, awkwardness gives way to coolness, and even the girls begin to pay attention to love-starved Arnie. Arnie’s liberation, however, carries with it a steep price: a bond forms between Arnie and his car, and Christine appears to be systematically killing those who had victimized him and those who attempt to attract Arnie’s attention. Christine, as it turns out, is a jealous sort, and she won’t tolerate anyone coming between her and her man. Arnie’s newfound confidence and appearance finds him with the prettiest girl in school, with calamitous results.

Christine is a story told in three parts: first is a first-person account from Dennis’ point of view, the second is in third-person and focuses on Arnie, then returns to Dennis in first-person for the conclusion. This technique makes for a very intimate telling, and allows the reader to gain the perspective of one who is losing their best friend to forces they can’t understand, as well as the painful changes that often happen in long-term friendships when those involved grow in different directions, for different reasons. Dennis likens Arnie’s spiral into obsession with Christine to that of a nice guy who winds up with the school tramp; try as he might to convince everyone that she’s really a special, wonderful person, they all know deep down that she’s trouble, and that no good will come of it, but he won’t hear of it, because she is the first girl who ever paid attention to him and sometimes, that’s enough.

Arnie Cunningham is doubtlessly one of King’s best-written characters and the reason is readily apparent: Arnie, just like Harold Lauder and Trashcan Man from The Stand, are extensions of King himself. The years of not fitting in, social and physical awkwardness, bullying, humiliation, crushes, and pent-up rage are masterfully funneled into these characters and it is this authenticity, this heartbreaking honesty, which makes these characters so compelling, so real. We cheer Arnie’s growing coolness at first, but are later repelled by his inability to understand the reality of his situation and his unwillingness to extricate himself from a relationship that redefines the concept of codependent dysfunction.

Each chapter in Christine opens with a passage from a 1950s car song that gives subtle indication to the action that will follow, and the three parts, titled Teenage Car Songs, Teenage Love Songs, and Teenage Death Songs, give us an idea of where the exquisitely paced story arc is headed, without giving anything away. From the first page, the story is suffused with a feeling of profound loss at that most delicate time of life, when one attempts to make the transition from child to adult. Being written by Stephen King, we can assume that Christine is a horror story, which it most certainly is, but perhaps the horror isn’t the scary car, but rather the realization that youth’s blossom fades too quickly, and that not all of us are able or willing to grow up. Despite all our best intentions, fate follows its own agenda, often with tragic, irreversible results.

Also in 1983, legendary filmmaker John Carpenter directed the film adaptation of Christine, at a time in which King adaptations were being produced at a furious rate, with often-dubious quality. Happily, Carpenter’s version follows the source material keenly, and the casting of Keith Gordon as Arnie and John Stockwell as Dennis works very well; the chemistry of the actors is organic and believable. In Carpenter’s version, Christine’s pedigree has changed: in the book, the reader is introduced to the car as it sits moldering in its owner’s yard; in the film, Christine is first seen on the assembly line, injuring several workers in the act of building it. This change is significant, as it turns Christine from being a vessel for the suppressed rage of its owners into something that was essentially ‘born bad’ and causes a major shift in the relational dynamic from personal to impersonal. The resulting film, which is very enjoyable, loses a fair degree of the emotional depth and overwhelming sense of tragedy that the book conveys.

This is a chief complaint with many King book-to-movie adaptations: when the author invests a great deal of energy and emotion building characters to very specific standards, as King does, much is inevitably lost in the transition to film. While Carpenter’s film is well-directed and worthy of respect, the themes of the book, as discussed above, are largely lost. In both versions, ancillary characters are not nearly as developed largely because their purpose is to propel the main characters, Arnie, Dennis, and Christine. When all is said and done, both versions stand up well, each on their own merits, and each worth a second look.

lifeforceThe Cannon Group. To those who were of a certain time, in a certain place, mere mention of The Cannon Group conjures giddy images of days spent in second-run theatres with sticky floors and scratchy prints. When the lights went down and the Cannon logo appeared on the screen, the audience knew precisely what to expect: low budgets, second-tier stars, improbably laughable scripts, and cheesy special effects. Cannon was for the 1980s what American International was for the 1960s: a reliable workhorse that churned out B movies with an ethos that quantity was far more valuable than quality. And yet, for those devotees in the dark, Cannon signified nothing less than magic.

Fresh from the box-office triumph of Poltergeist (1982), director Tobe Hooper (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) signed a three-picture deal with Cannon; his first project, which was reportedly forced on him, was a film adaptation of the lamentably titled 1977 novel Space Vampires. The picture was given a twenty-five million dollar budget, an astonishing sum for Cannon to put into a single feature. With Hooper at the helm, a screenplay co-written by Dan O’Bannon (Dark Star, Alien, Return of the Living Dead), cinematography by Alan Hume (Return of the Jedi, A View to A Kill, A Fish Called Wanda), effects by the legendary John Dykstra (Silent Running, Star Wars, Django Unchained), and music by Henry Mancini, Lifeforce seemed poised to make a big splash. But this didn’t happen. Cannon co-owners Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus had intended Lifeforce to be a mega-budgeted science fiction / horror blockbuster; however, the film ended up grossing around eleven million dollars and was considered a flop. Home video fortunately allowed Lifeforce to find its audience, giving it the second chance it deserved, and a devoted cult following ensued.  

A joint United States / British scientific team are investigating the passing Halley’s Comet, when they find what appears to be a ship in the midst of the comet. Further investigation reveals the presence of three humanoids in suspended animation, which are taken into their shuttle for analysis. As it turns out, the three are vampires of a sort who, instead of blood, siphon the soul, the energy, of their victims. When they come to Earth, all hell breaks loose and Armageddon is but a stone’s throw away. The themes explored in Lifeforce are familiar to the vampire genre: the loss of control over one’s self, killing to live, and immortality. The film’s strength, however, isn’t in the story, but rather the telling; Steve Railsback (Helter Skelter, The Stunt Man) handles his starring role capably, balancing action and drama well, despite the occasional rough patch of dialogue. Patrick Stewart maintains a small but vital role, just two years before finding international fame as Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the starship Enterprise. The effects work is excellent, particularly when considering the budget and lack of computer generated imagery. As the film winds toward its climax London descends into chaos, and the scenes of terror in the streets are extraordinarily well done although, admittedly, scenes of terror in the streets are my weakness.

The film works because of, rather than despite, the occasional bit of ham-fisted dialogue that harkens back to American horror films of the 1950s (obviously intentional with O’Bannon as the writer), astounding practical effects, genre-appropriate scoring, outstanding cinematography, solid performances, and the jaw-dropping Mathilda May in a one-of-a-kind performance that none will forget.

The real star here is Scream! Factory; their Blu-Ray treatment of Lifeforce is superlative, and includes the truncated US release (101 minutes), and also the vastly superior, international edit (116 minutes). The prints have been nicely restored and for the most part look great, aside from a few scratches here and there. The sound quality is top-shelf, and sounds excellent on a 6.1 surround system. Extras include a vintage “Making Of” featurette, as well as new interview segments with Railsback, Mathilda May, and Hooper, all of whom look back fondly at the film. To have taken the time to film new segments with the three principals is a commendable touch, especially for the fans who have embraced this great, if somewhat odd, film for nearly thirty years. If the treatment of Lifeforce is any indication of Scream! Factory’s dedication to preserving and presenting genre films to a new generation of viewers, the future looks bright indeed, provided there aren’t any naked space vampire invasions on the horizon.

bed sheet phantom

Boo.

What follows is an article I wrote for a skeptic journal a dozen years ago. I re-discovered it a couple of days ago, brushed it off and prettied it up, and present it here. Enjoy.
Physicist Costas Efthimiou, a professor at the University of Central Florida, offers a theoretical glimpse that purports to put to rest the notion that the dead walk among us in spirit form: According to the laws laid down by Sir Isaac Newton, it is impossible for a non-physical entity to simultaneously walk upon surfaces and pass through solid objects, such as doors and walls; if a being is applying force to the ground in order to propel themselves, they therefore can’t pass through other solids without also falling through the floor. As a physical being, I know for a fact that I cannot pass through a floor, and I have walked into enough walls and doors to assume that I will have no chance of ever passing through, even if I were approaching Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station.
There are, however, several issues with his theories, foremost the idea that Newtonian laws pertaining to the physical world somehow apply to entities that do not exist in the corporeal realm. If ghosts are, as often hypothesized, beings constructed of memory, energy, and/or other non-physical materials, how then can we reasonably expect them to be bound by the same laws that us mere mortals by nature must adhere to?
The article then abruptly takes a sharp turn and notes that, according to a 2005 Gallup poll, approximately 1 in 3 Americans believe that houses can be haunted, and that it is possible to communicate with the dead. The impression I was left with, as a reader, was that the writer of the article really wanted to make the point that individuals who believe in the paranormal are rubes; an act of pseudo-intellectual elitism that served no good purpose at all.
Nearly every culture on Earth embraces some sort of belief system about the afterlife; why is this so? My guess, and it’s only a guess, is that no matter how technologically advanced we become, no matter how much science advances our understanding of the Universe and our place within it, no one as yet has been able to answer the biggest of all questions: Where do we go when we die? I think the question for most people is so staggering, so terrifying, that the average mind can’t comprehend the notion of our consciousness simply ceasing to exist. I certainly can’t, and believe me, I’ve tried. Or is it all just a matter of ego – is it a way of saying, “Hey, it’s ME we’re talking about here. I simply can’t accept the fact that when I die, that’s the end of the story.” Unable to accept the idea that the world keeps turning without them, many people need to believe that there is something amazing, something special, that was built just for them to ride out eternity.
So we create afterlife archetypes that conform to our particular sets of sensibilities, primarily that good people go on to a place full of happiness and joy, where they can spend eternity with all the people they loved on Earth, and the bad people move on to eternal punishment in the burning lake of fire, or something equally nasty. Is it possible that the ideas of Heaven and Hell are natural, physical constructs? It’s highly doubtful; history has proven time and again that good and evil are often highly subjective views of morality, and that nature rarely, if ever, makes a judgment call based on the moral qualities of an individual’s personality.
I believe that we, as humans, build our own ideas of existence beyond death from the twin factors of fear and justice. Not knowing what happens after we leave this physical realm, we still attempt to control our destinies and in this attempt, we create afterlives we can accept, that make sense to us. Also, we all want to be rewarded and remembered for the good things we have done, but we also desire that the guilty be punished, if only for the fact that by comparison, we look that much better. Never underestimate the power of humans to sandbag the next guy, especially when the possibility of eternal damnation is at stake.
And then there’s ghosts. The world in which we live is often a difficult and dangerous one; it can also seem quite unfair although that is again assuming that nature understands or even cares about the complexities of fair and unfair, of right and wrong. Many people die before we believe it is their time, and many good people often die in horrible and senseless ways; conversely, lots of truly awful people live long lives. In our uniquely human sense of cosmic justice, is it unreasonable to think that for those people, their earthly journey is not quite over? Not really. As moral creatures, we by nature feel that every person’s life has to have meaning and purpose and we are not very adept at accepting the idea that sometimes bad things just happen. I think that for many of us, it is more comforting to believe that the person who was taken by bad circumstance has been able to linger and exact some sort of spiritual revenge on those who were responsible for their misery, or even that since it wasn’t their time, they have nowhere to go and are stuck here on Earth in some sort of limbo. We take comfort in the idea that those who have left us are still around, that they’re watching over us or guiding us from beyond, that they miss us and still think about us.
It has been suggested that some ghosts and hauntings are the manifestation of guilt and anxiety; in Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, the story’s protagonist is not taunted by the person he murdered; rather, it is his guilt for the murder that haunts him and eats away at his sanity until he confesses his crime. Perhaps the only thing that is truly haunted is the mind and imagination of the individual who experiences the phenomena. If enough people are empathetic to the idea of the spiritual manifestation of the dead, particularly in a place where one could logically conclude that many people died horrible and unnatural deaths (battlefields, prisons, hospitals, sanitariums, mental institutions, etc.), it is entirely possible that there may exist a sort of shared psychological experience. However, this idea is by no means all-encompassing when attempting to explain the widespread reports and experiences of such phenomena.
Studies have indicated that people who are inclined to believe in ghosts stand a better chance of encountering one than people who don’t believe and if a person visits a location that is known for paranormal activity, then they already have a set of preconceived expectations before they even enter the area. Many years ago, I spent a summer working at a toy store in Northern California that had achieved a large amount of notoriety for having been haunted and in knowing this, I experienced a number of events that I immediately ascribed to the ghost which was said to be in residence. However, my mindset was not entirely objective: I like to believe that spirits do exist and since I was already aware of the alleged haunting, I was predisposed to believe that anything weird that happened was automatically due to the ghost and nothing more conventionally explainable.
And now, ghosts are big money: several cable networks run documentary series that show paranormal investigators plying their trade in places that, as previously mentioned, should be rife with paranormal activity. These shows run the gamut from earnestly sincere to the downright goofy, and I’m sure each have their devoted followers. That said, we faithfully watch them all, week after week, in hope of that one piece of evidence that will answer the question, once and for all. Maybe next week.
Many towns, at least the more touristy ones, offer local ‘ghost tours’ which, depending on the area, can be sort of fun, in a kitsch way, and you might even learn some history. As for ghostly encounters…individual results may vary. The demand for otherworldly thrills has also impacted the venerable Winchester Mystery House; again, in my early days, I worked briefly as a tour guide at the house. In those days, we were strictly forbidden to even suggest that  there might be spooks about; however, the attitude seems to have changed, because now the house hosts midnight tours, seances, and proudly proclaims itself to be haunted. And maybe it is, but I never experienced anything more than a freezing, drafty old house in San Jose in February.
Whatever the case, the chances are strong that we will probably never really know the answer of what happens until we actually die and so far, no one has come back to tell us about it. Harry Houdini, arguably the greatest illusionist and skeptic there ever was, on his deathbed, promised to make a spiritual return if it was at all possible, to prove once and for all if there is existence beyond our physical world, and this is a man who made passionate sport of exposing and debunking mediums, spiritualists, and cold readers.
For the sake of transparency, my wife and I live in a house where things happen, and the community in which we live is next door to a large Catholic cemetery. We have each been grabbed or touched, shadows have passed in front of light sources, unseen weights have settled down on our bed at night, and we often hear footsteps – heavy, human, footsteps. Something plays with one of our cats, in much the way that a child would. We had a team of paranormal investigators visit our home for two overnight sessions, and they produced evidence that can’t be readily explained away. One evening, the team dropped by to go over evidence from the weekend’s investigation, and during that conversation, footsteps directly overhead resulted in an impromptu investigation.
So, here we are, at the end of this, and I have no answers. The skeptic in me says that every bit of evidence has to be rigorously examined, while the believer in me wants to, well, believe. If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’m sorry to have left this unresolved, but perhaps in the next life we’ll see a conclusion to the story.

hornIt was doomed from the start, man. There had been six of us, and we were the masters of the universe, bulletproof and straight up gangster. You know the names already. What matters, what you have to understand, is that when we started that thing, we meant to do good. To be good, and to inspire others to do good, too.

We wanted what everyone else wants: respect, friends, love. We wanted to take the love to the people, to show them that there was nothing to fear, no reason to hide, that we weren’t the monsters so many of them thought we were. And for a while, it worked.

I was the face of the movement. I never bought into the whole ‘Sad Clown’ mindset; I felt that this life of mine should reflect the joy, the gleeful chaos that ensued whenever I walked into the tent. That’s what I was all about. Fucking joy, even if I wasn’t always feeling it. So there’s my mug, all happy smiles and arched eyebrows, bald cap over a bright green monk’s cowl. You know me. You’ve seen the posters and I know you watch the news.

So we would assemble, faces already in place, and we’d go in to the hospitals. Find the terminal kids and give them some laughs. That’s what most of us did, anyway. Captain Fancypants and Sparkles would slip away and find the place where they kept the good drugs, the serious narcotics, locked up. It’s not like it is now; in those days, it was just a closet, sometimes marked, sometimes not. Moe had huge pockets inside those baggy pants of his, and that son of a bitch could empty a pharmacy in seconds flat. By the time the pharmacist realized they’d been hit, we were already down the road and besides, who’d suspect a clown?

Then, and this is the important part, we’d take the drugs to the people who needed it. Not the junkies or the dealers, but the good people who were in serious pain and couldn’t afford a hospital visit or a costly prescription. Yes, we stole, but we did good with it. So much good. The problem is that the more we saw of the people in need, the angrier we got with those who held the purse strings, who kept the stuff out of the hands of the needy and in the hands of the entitled. We were like Robin Hood, but with rubber chickens instead of bow and arrow.

We eventually came to realize that the hospitals were small potatoes, that if we really wanted to make a difference, we’d have to hit the manufacturing facilities where the meds were made. So that’s what we did. I won’t bore you with the details of the plan, but it was brilliant. I thought it was, at least.

We hit the plant at midnight, figuring no one would be there. We were clowns, for Christ’s sake; what did we know about security at major pharmaceutical companies? Basic tools, nothing else, aside from the duffel bags. I had no idea that Twitch brought explosives, or why. What the fuck, why bring bangers on a night raid? I thought he’d left that behind in favor of Clown Life. Twitch always had that nervous energy about him, even when he was in makeup. Edgy, like an electrical current was running through him. So we break in through a side door, find our way to manufacturing and holy shit, there are mountains of boxes of pills, everything you could imagine, and a ton more that you couldn’t. I head straight for the antibiotics, knowing that there were folks up in the hills who needed them badly, so badly.

Working quickly, we filled our pockets and bags while Bananahead kept a lookout. The thing was, we didn’t know there was a night watchman. It wasn’t his fault. I didn’t think it was our fault either, but I know better now. These guys come through the door with flashlights in hand, maybe with guns drawn or maybe not, and the whole damn thing went sideways. Bananahead loses his shit and starts yelling about power to the people and fuck the system, like we’re the goddamn Weathermen or something, despite us all being in our goddamn clown suits. The guards didn’t know what the hell to do. They were laughing, but at the same time they knew something was wrong because it’s the middle of the damn night in a drug company warehouse and there’s five goddamn clowns screaming at him, screaming at each other, and then one of the clowns pulls a giant lighter out of his pants and sparks the fuse on a stick of dynamite and next thing you know, there’s blood all over the place and the night is wrecked, just fucking wrecked. It’s gone to shit, like Reservoir Dogs in greasepaint.

We’re standing there in a daze, and the poor security guards are dead, so obviously and violently dead, and scattered all over the place, Bananahead is covered in blood and gore, and Captain Fancypants is sitting on the floor, head in hands, weeping and sobbing like a baby and next thing I know, the night is filled with the screaming of sirens. The door is kicked in and suddenly Twitch is just gone, his head explodes in a spray of pink and red, and Sparkles is thrown backward by the force of a shotgun blast and then it’s just me, all the rest are dead, and all the guns are pointed at me, and they’re all shouting and all I can do is stand there, shit-the-pants terrified, but this goddamn smile painted on my face makes them think I’m getting off on this and I’m shouting and they’re shouting, and when I try to take a step my shoe squeaks and I slip in a puddle of someone’s blood and land on my ass, which sets off the whoopee cushion and I realize then that it’s all over, that my life’s work is ended, my passion dead, because of this.This hopeless, stupid mess.

I wanted to help people. I wanted to spread laughter and hope. I’m lost. My friends are dead, and I’m going to prison for a long time, the big vacation, and for a moment, everything stops and I’m reminded what my old friend and mentor, Dingles, told me, so many years ago.

“Kid, no matter what you do,” he said, dead serious with the stink of grain alcohol on his breath. “Don’t ever do no shit that’ll end you up behind bars. Bad things happen to a clown in jail. Permanent things, awful things. Trust me, I know.” He had shivered at the recollection, and a silent tear had slid down his painted face. He didn’t think people could see when he cried, and most couldn’t. But I could, every goddamn time. No one hurts quite like a clown.

I can’t go to prison, I know I won’t survive, that no mercy is shown for Red Nosers like me. I have no choice, this is my destiny, right here, right now. I say when is when and enough is enough. Looking back, I never had a chance; this life, clown life, chose me from the very start. This is who I am, what I am. I pull my knife and slash my own throat, real fast. The spray erupts from me like seltzer from a bottle. As the life drains out of me, I hear the cops laughing.

Life is good.

happiness-07All along the boardwalk, happy people and happy families wandered, enjoying the warm late summer sunshine that carried with it the faint but unmistakable light of the approaching autumn. The air was saturated with the smell of corn dogs and soft pretzels, and children scampered around their parents, playfully shrieking with the sense of unfettered freedom that only comes with the very young, a freedom that would be lost soon enough to the vagaries of adulthood. The parents knew this, as all adults do, and quietly mourned the loss of innocence that would one day fall upon their children, as surely as it had fallen upon them.

Music rang out softly from cleverly concealed speakers; 70s pop from bands whose names few remembered, but lyrics everyone knew, their contagious catchiness declaring with anthemic earnestness that happiness was only a heartbeat away, just one more kiss away, that her magical spell was working so well, and that all would be right on a Saturday night. A slight breeze off the ocean wafted past the revelers as they took in the sights and the sounds of one last weekend before the weather turned.

The town’s autumns were its best kept secret; known locally as “Second Summer,” it was the delicate span of two to three weeks after labor day, when all the tourists had gone back home, and the town again belonged to those who lived and worked there. The pace slowed, rules relaxed a bit, and a cheerful glow enveloped the strand along the beach. This was the time in which, as if by communal agreement, nothing happened, as per the unwritten code of the tourist towns across the country. In the absence of Them, all that remained was Us.

Hands held, arms around waists, moving at a pace that spoke of neither hurry nor worry, everyone just happy and content to be here, to be sharing the quiet joy of Fall, and even if something was lightly fouling the air, a faint whiff of what, decay maybe, it would pass soon enough and be as quickly forgotten. Except that to some, the smell was growing stronger, more pungent. More wrong.

A gasp arose from somewhere in the crowd, the sound repeating as others turned to see, a susurration of shock whose echo grew louder, instead of diminishing. Children cried, their mothers and fathers drawing them close with iron-gripped hands, shielding their eyes from what they had already seen, could never un-see, their childhoods crashing down around them like milk bottles in a rigged carnival game. The throng of people parted, not unlike the Red Sea, at the sight of the woman among them.

The woman, if she could even be called that anymore.

She staggered along the promenade, this ruined wreck of a human being, oblivious to the multitude staring at her. Barefoot, shambling toward an unknown destination, each step leaving a bloody smear on the ground, gangrenous toes the dark purple-green of putrefaction, the hem of her tattered sweatpants as filthy as the feet beneath them, the knees torn through and crusted with dried blood, suggesting a lifetime spent on her knees; a torn, sleeveless cardigan hung open, making no secret of the nakedness behind it, the awful, shameless bruising and open sores weeping sickly yellow pus and blood, and the arms, the terrible arms with countless scratches and scars, suggesting that she might have been a cutter, but even worse, much worse than that, were the blackened track marks that flowed down from the crooks of each arm, the wounds that had never closed, homemade tattoos unidentifiable now but staining the flesh for ever more.

But the left arm, it must have been a trick of the light, certainly that if nothing else, because the left forearm…the skin was rotting away, the radius and ulna brownish-white and exposed like a dirty secret for all the world to see, ragged flaps of desiccated skin and tendons hanging loosely, hardly any meat to cling to, just empty air, the hand, if indeed it was a hand, flopping limply at her side and wrapped in a towel soiled and dripping, no tissue to give it life, to give it motion. As the horror of the arm attempted to lodge itself in the minds of those who saw it, they were powerless as their eyes went to her face, which was perhaps the worst of all.

Her hair, which may once have been strawberry blond, was a dirty, matted mess, hanging in her face, but not enough to cover it, not nearly enough, for her face was a tattered roadmap of self-hatred and abuse of many types. Blood vessels had bust like fireworks in one eye, leaving the sclera red and angry, while the other eye, its pupil dilated, wandered about, searching everything, focusing on nothing, blood leaking like awful tears from the depths of a hell beyond comprehension, her nose partially eaten away, scarcely more than a diseased crater in the middle of her face, yellow-green snot hanging in thick ropes, her occasional sniffles doing nothing to stem the tide of mucus running into and out of the hole where once had been a mouth, where once had been strong, white teeth, but now was home to rotting, ragged stumps of black and brown, lips chewed to shreds as though incredible pain had been sustained.

Her shoulders slumped, betraying any sense of height, and such was her appearance that her own mother, had she been there that day, would have failed to recognize her. The woman’s ruination was so complete, so absolute, that nothing of her humanity remained. Dragging a leprous foot behind her, she slouched onward, humming a song to herself, a discordant but familiar tune, so quietly that none of those nearest her, who cleared a broad path, could have heard it. Had they chanced approaching this malignant, walking nightmare, they might have learned something about her, but none there on that awful day were willing to cross the line between caution and foolishness which, as it turned out, made no difference whatsoever.

The sniffling got louder and she stopped in her tracks, body shuddering and trembling as though current was passing through it. Suddenly, explosively, she sneezed, the force of it doubling her over and as phlegm spattered the horrified faces around her, the sneeze caused her to violently void her bowels, a vile torrent of toxic shit staining her pants and cascading down her leg.

Screams erupted as those covered in her mess caught the smell, as though all they had seen had been abstract until they were spattered in her filth, that they were shocked back into reality. As the people scattered and ran, frantically clutching their children, the woman coughed slightly and pitched forward, her swollen, distended abdomen disgorging an impossible amount of black bile onto the ground, her face landing in the puddle of vomit. With death, the last of her muscles gave way, and a reeking lake of dark waste soon surrounded her, her wretched destruction complete.

In the distance, a siren wailed. By the time paramedics arrived on the scene, the woman’s purpose had been served; the poison that had exploded from her orifices and leaked from her pores, had reached nearly every soul on the boardwalk with absolute efficiency.

It had begun.

desktop-1430323952“We are all alone, born alone, die alone, and—in spite of True Romance magazines—we shall all someday look back on our lives and see that, in spite of our company, we were alone the whole way.” — Hunter S Thompson

This past weekend, Epic Steph and I went back to the Museum of Death for our second visit. We’d gone earlier in the year for my birthday, but this time we were grizzled veterans, bringing friends who’d never been. That first visit had been on a Monday morning, just after the museum had opened; this time, it was a late Saturday afternoon. Packed but silent, save for the one woman who was there with family, obviously drunk. Whatever.

Having already seen the sights, I contented myself with observing the other guests, and looking, really looking, at the hundreds of photos that line the walls. This time, I saw that all the victims in all the photos bore one common trait: they died alone. Even if there were two or three together, they died alone. Sharon Tate, Elizabeth Short, Abigail Folger, Albert Dekker, the sad sacks of the Heaven’s Gate comet cult, the incomprehensible nine hundred and eighteen of Jonestown, the suicides, the executions, the murders…no matter how many were there, each of those people went to death by themselves: their final breath, their final pulse, a desperately personal act as they made their way to the other side.

Even the Serial Killer Gallery, the first exhibit in the museum, stands as testament to the loneliness of the deviant mind. Artwork by Gacy and Ramirez are poor attempts at portraying an alienated inner landscape few of us can really understand. Here and there are the random teams, Toole and Lucas, Bianchi and Buono, but even in those cases, it was the loneliness of alienation that bonded these people together. This is no attempt at justification; just an observation that these were some profoundly fucked-up people who had trouble relating to most others and acted out in abhorrent ways.

Leaving the museum, we ventured up Hollywood Boulevard in the waning light of the fall afternoon, the setting sun seeming to light the street on fire as the city’s night shift emerged. The boulevard fascinates me; tourists make pilgrimages here every day of the year, seeking that magic that might have once lived here, but has long since fled. Graumann’s Chinese is owned by some big company that has set retail kiosks out in the courtyard, the souvenir carts covering the very signatures and handprints that bring people there in the first place, while poorly-costumed geeks wander the crowd, demanding money for photos no one wants, while a guy selling five-dollar t-shirts calls a girl a fucking bitch because she doesn’t return his aggressive flirting.

Across the street is the El Capitan, a former movie palace that’s been restored to its former glory by Disney. It’s beautiful, but in a cheap and tawdry way because it’s just another cynical way for Disney to pimp itself, but it stands in stark contrast to the ugliness, the desperation, the despair of Hollywood Boulevard. All the other storefronts are cheap souvenir shops, luggage shops, food stalls, ‘naughty’ costume shops, strip clubs, liquor stores, and on and on, foul, dirty, untended, uncared for. One would think that with all the tourism, someone would step up and take back at least this block, reclaim it as a tourist destination and make it pretty, clean, photogenic and worth visiting, but it’s painfully obvious that no one has given a damn about this place in a very long time.

Lining the star-embedded sidewalks are the legions of the homeless and the addicted, the lost and the lonely, hustling a buck to get through the night, the stink of urine rising from the sun-baked street makes me think of Times Square circa 1976, wondering which of the countless, wound-up Travis Bickles wandering the street, lonesome and unloved, alienated and alienating, will be the next to snap, and how many they’ll take with them.

We see two prostitutes inside the Roosevelt, and my friend tells me that the dark-haired one will die tonight, and I have no problem believing that. The words are spoken without humor, an honest, genuine gut-hunch that I’m in no position to argue, because when night falls on the Boulevard, anything is possible and the darkness is absolute. It’s then that I realize that all of this, the hustling, the squalor, the stardom, the death, all of this – it’s all a monument to loneliness, the uncomfortable silence that falls between friends, between lovers, between family members, that which drives people apart and away, sending them scuttling into the dark corners of their homes, the streets, their hearts,  their minds, fighting the thoughts, the voices, the need, the desire, the desperation, the despair, the longing, the heartache, the past, the future, until there is no fight left, the will exhausted, the battle lost, and the curtain finally falls.