I can now announce that I was recently in Las Vegas to record a segment for the upcoming season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us on the CW network! Took this photo of my badge (and the crazy carpet at the Rio).
I can now announce that I was recently in Las Vegas to record a segment for the upcoming season of Penn & Teller: Fool Us on the CW network! Took this photo of my badge (and the crazy carpet at the Rio).
My post about favorite haunted house movies inspired me to make another list of films in the horror/supernatural genre: favorite vampire films. The vampire is one of the most enduring figures in literature and film, possibly because it represents very powerful human fears and desires. At its heart, the vampire is a representation of our fear of decay and death — fear of the process that leads to nonexistence — and our desire to transcend death and achieve immortality.
And then there’s sex. The carnality of biting and the sharing of fluids is so apparent in vampire fiction that it’s hardly subtext. But it’s important to remember that sexy vampires are a relatively recent construct. The proto-vampire of folklore was a repulsive figure more akin to the modern image of the zombie than to the central characters of Dark Shadows, Angel, and The Vampire Diaries.
With all that in mind, here is a list of my top-ten favorite vampire films, in ascending order:
A recent viewing of the film The Uninvited, starring Ray Milland and Ruth Hussey, made me think about haunted house movies in general. I’ve been fascinated by spooky movies ever since I was a kid, back when even a rather tame episode of Night Gallery could give me nightmares for a week. In retrospect, I realize that watching those movies provided an education in the effective use of atmosphere, sound, and imagery. The haunted house subgenre has, on both a conscious and an unconscious level, provided plenty of inspiration for my magic.
Haunted house movies concern spooky goings-on within a particular home or building. The Frighteners, Sleepy Hollow, The Ring, A Nightmare on Elm Street, and The Sixth Sense are all good movies and they’re all about spirits of the dead returning to haunt the living, but I don’t think of them as haunted house movies, because their focus is not on a discrete home or structure. And although The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity are about demonic possession rather than ghosts, with the implication that the supernatural phenomena would follow the possessed or cursed individuals no matter where they lived, these movies are so powerfully associated with place — that staircase, this bedroom, that basement or attic — that they might as well be haunted house movies. I’m sure some movie aficionados would disagree, and that’s all well and good; it’s fuel for discussion over a pint of beer or blood or whatever. (Topic for further discussion: Why do the titles of haunted house movies almost always begin with the word “The”?)
So, with all that in mind, here is a list of some of my favorite haunted house movies:
The Innocents (1961). This adaptation of Henry James’s story “The Turn of the Screw” is my all-time favorite haunted house movie. So much of it is accomplished by implication and atmosphere, subtlety and suggestion. Deborah Kerr plays a woman who accepts a job as governess to a pair of children who live in a manor house that holds more than its share of secrets and tragedy. Kerr’s performance is amazing, as is that of the two kids. The movie is now available in high-definition video, so viewers can fully appreciate the beautiful black-and-white cinematography.
The Haunting (1963). Based on Shirley Jackson’s story “The Haunting of Hill House,” this is perhaps the archetypal haunted house movie. The opening shots and narration establish the house itself as a character. Julie Harris and Claire Bloom are awesome. It’s a solid adaptation of the story, with excellent use of low-tech effects and camerawork. Avoid even glancing in the direction of the worthless 1999 remake; it will rob you of your will to live.
The Others (2001). A movie strongly influenced by The Innocents, with many similar elements — a young brother and sister, a new governess, a manor house, and great performances by the entire cast, including the two kids. This movie is evidence that Spanish filmmakers have mastered the task of conveying a sense of the otherworldly in ways that Hollywood just doesn’t seem to understand. Further evidence is provided by the following film…
The Orphanage (El Orfanato, 2007). An old orphanage, an abandoned lighthouse, a dank cave, a trail of seashells, a kid who wears a creepy sackcloth mask — these are a few of my favorite things, especially when they’re combined in a mystery-thriller with supernatural overtones. This movie has plenty of eerie scenes and some real gut-punch moments, but it’s also a surprisingly touching story. The Orphanage was co-produced by Guillermo del Toro, who wrote and directed a film that’s also set in a haunted orphanage…
The Devil’s Backbone (El Espinazo del Diablo, 2001). Near the end of the Spanish Civil War, a boy is dropped off at an orphanage. Although the boy gets along well with the headmistress and his teacher, there are some unsettling aspects to his new home: a caretaker with a mean streak; a huge unexploded bomb that rests in the center of the school’s courtyard; and the ghost of a boy who lived — and died — at the school. This is one of del Toro’s personal movies, the ones he makes in-between big Hollywood projects. It’s a great little ghost story and, like all of del Toro’s work — although some credit must also go to his friend and cinematographer Guillermo Navarro — it’s beautiful to look at.
The Grudge (2004). In some circles, the following statement is considered to be heresy: I prefer the US remake over of the Japanese original, Ju-On. I can’t argue that one is better than the other; it’s just a personal preference. The Grudge portrays a haunting as a kind of viral curse that infects a house and then poisons the life of everyone who sets foot in it. I was caught off guard by this movie. Something about the sounds and images in it really got under my skin, and I had a couple of nights of creepy, disturbing dreams that woke me up at odd hours. I hadn’t experienced that in a loooooong time. I’m not sure what nerve-center this movie got to in my brain, but it was definitely the part that remembers what it’s like to imagine The Thing Under The Bed.
The Evil Dead (1981). Technically a demonic possession movie, it’s also an exemplary “spooky cabin in the woods” movie. The Evil Dead bent my mind when I first saw it, a few years after I graduated from high school. I’d never seen anything like it — a carnival dark ride, somehow captured on film. And after all these years, its handmade, low-budget charm remains intact. Gory, hilarious, startling, over-the-top, innovative, and wacky are just some of the adjectives I’d use to describe The Evil Dead. (I can’t list this film without also mentioning The Cabin in the Woods, in which masterminds Joss Whedon and Drew Goddard take all the conventions of this genre, pack them with illicit fireworks purchased on the edge of town, and gleefully blow them up.)
The Exorcist (1973). Let me tell you about the first time I saw this movie. My parents had wisely prevented me from seeing it when I was a kid, so I finally saw it in the student union of the University of Wisconsin during my first year of college. When the movie reached the dream sequence in which Father Karras sees brief, almost subliminal flashes of Captain Howdy’s demonic visage, the film got stuck, fixed on a frame of that horrible face, and then the projector broke. After an hour, most of the audience gave up and left, but a few die-hard folks stuck around until a different projector was located and we could finish watching the movie. And you know what? I’m glad it happened that way. It was a memorable experience, and the wait was so worth it.
Paranormal Activity (2007). I know, I know — some people despise the Paranormal Activity movies. While I admit that the law of diminishing returns kicked in a while back, I’m a fan of the first few entries in the series. It seems to me that they’re structured very much like magic shows, with each “effect” calculated to tease viewers and draw us in for a goosebumpy reveal or a big “gotcha” moment. And there’s something very appealing — to me, anyway — about the idea of unleashing occult weirdness on the bland suburban McMansion.
The Shining (1980). Love it or hate it — Stephen King, author of the novel on which it was based, hated it — there’s no arguing with the fact that Kubrick’s film adaptation of this story is loaded with iconic imagery, indelible performances, and quotable dialogue. Like Hill House, the Overlook Hotel is a character in the drama. There’s no forgetting the brightly patterned carpet, the blood-drenched elevator, the hedge maze, or the door to room 237. I saw The Shining in the theater when it was first released, and many people seemed to express disappointment that the movie departed significantly from the book. (Everyone I knew had read the book.) I remember thinking that it was the weirdest big-budget mainstream movie I’d ever seen.
A Tale of Two Sisters (Janghwa, Hongryeon, 2003). This Korean film plays as a kind of twisted modern fairy tale, complete with a wicked stepmother. Two young sisters return home from an extended hospital stay, only to find that the household is now ruled by an icy, domineering woman who seems to have their father under a spell. It soon becomes apparent that something very bad happened in this house, and the repercussions of that event have taken ghostly form. Tension hangs over every scene, even an innocent dinner party, and the supernatural can impinge on everyday reality at any moment. The plot is revealed, piece by piece, in a deliberately disorienting way. But it all fits together at the end, when we can step back and see the big picture. Don’t bother with the 2009 Hollywood remake, which borrows the title of a classic haunted house movie, The Uninvited, and includes unnecessary alterations to the plot.
The Uninvited (1944). This movie holds the distinction of being one of the first Hollywood productions to portray ghosts as something other than a gag or a hoax. Unavailable on video until very recently, it gained a reputation as a little-known classic. Criterion has given it the full treatment — digital restoration, remastering, and a release on blu-ray. The movie looks great, lots of atmospheric lighting and deep shadows. There’s a nifty séance scene, and a couple of creepy moments that would have freaked me out if I’d seen this movie when I was a kid. Viewers of a certain age will no doubt enjoy seeing Batman’s butler, Alan Napier, turn up in a supporting role. Also on the disc are two radio drama versions of the story, and a short documentary or “visual essay” about the film. (The info about Gail Russell, the ingenue in the film, is soooo sad.) The accompanying booklet includes an interview with the director, Lewis Allen. While The Innocents is still my favorite haunted house movie, The Uninvited is a noteworthy entry in the genre and is well worth seeing, especially in this lovely hi-def edition.
I have two new additions to this list of favorites:
Housebound (2014). This little indie movie from New Zealand is the debut effort of writer-director Gerard Johnstone — and an impressive debut it is. The tone of the movie is similar to Shaun of the Dead or Peter Jackson’s early work, in that it’s very funny but also has some genuinely creepy and tense moments, along with plenty of handmade charm. Quick spoiler-free plot synopsis. A sullen, contemptuous young woman named Kylie is caught committing a crime and is sentenced to house arrest under the supervision of her mother and stepfather. Mom is convinced that the house is haunted, but Kylie thinks her mom is just being dopey — until some weird, inexplicable stuff happens and hijinks ensue. I suppose this film would be classified as a “horror comedy,” but I’m wary of that categorization because it usually includes dumb, pandery stuff like the Scary Movie franchise. Housebound, like Dead Alive and Shaun of the Dead, demonstrates that a genre mashup works best when it’s done with sincerity.
The Babadook (2014). This Australian flick received a limited theatrical run in the US and is scheduled for release on video in April 2015. It’s a horror film done right: lots of atmosphere, fully developed characters, a simple and clear story — almost a fable — and carefully limited use of special effects. I’d say that the spiritual twin of this movie is The Innocents, and like that film, The Babadook can be seen as a straight-up haunted house movie or it can be interpreted from a non-supernatural angle. Magic, in the sense of sleight of hand and in the fairy-tale sense, plays an important part in the story. George Méliès even makes a brief appearance. A couple of moments in this movie were chilling enough to raise goose bumps on my arms, and that doesn’t happen very often. The two lead actors put in great performances, the art direction is top notch, and bibliophiles of the bizarre type will wish that their bookshelves were occupied by the creepy pop-up book that is the centerpiece of the film.
The Magic Cabaret was featured in the Arts & Entertainment section of the Chicago Tribune on Sunday, February 1, 2015. Big thanks to Rick Kogan for his appreciation of the art of magic, and to Beth Rooney for photographing the show! If you missed the print edition of the article, here’s a link to the online version:
David Parr is featured in the December issue of American Theatre magazine! A nifty article by journalist and theater critic Chloe Veltman includes quotes from an interview with David, as well as a photo from Haunting History. Read the complete article here: http://www.tcg.org/publications/at/dec11/magic.cfm
I’ve been a fan of the show Buffy the Vampire Slayer for quite a while now. Recently, Dark Horse comics invited me and several other fans to guest blog about the show and the upcoming Buffy Season 9 comic books. You can read my blogitude on the Dark Horse comics website:
The Horror! The Horror! — that’s the title of a book I’ve recently enjoyed. The subtitle is: Comic Books the Government Didn’t Want You to Read. It’s a celebration of horror comics from the early 1950s, the most famous of which is EC’s Tales from the Crypt. But while the EC books are often written about and are currently back in print in hardcover collections, this book devotes most of its attention to the scores of all-but-forgotten titles that were published every month: Dark Mysteries, Uncanny Tales, Tomb of Terror, Diary of Horror, Chamber of Chills, Mister Mystery, Weird Terror, Menace, Horrific, Chilling Tales, Black Cat Mystery, The Thing, Out of the Shadows, and my favorite title, This Magazine is Haunted. In the heyday of horror comics, it was not uncommon for drugstores and news stands to have an entire wall devoted to these enticingly garish funnybooks, because they sold like crazy. Sadly, the entire enterprise was doomed, not by the whims of fate but by the comics publishers themselves, who rolled over for grandstanding politicians and social commentators who singled out horror comics as a scapegoat for any number of societal ills, including murder, theft, sexual deviancy, and dancing on sabbath days. (Well, maybe not that last one.) Bullied into submission, and fearing the specter of government regulation, in 1954 the comics industry established the self-censoring Comics Code Authority and effectively banned their bestselling product. The new rules forbade use of the words horror and terror in comic book titles. Also banned were vampires, depictions of unlawful activities that encouraged “sympathy for the criminal” or “distrust of the forces of law and justice,” and “scenes or instruments associated with walking dead, torture, ghouls, cannibalism, and werewolfism.” And that’s just a tiny sample of the wackadoo regulations these folks were coerced into imposing on themselves. Nevertheless, it was all for the greater good, because from that day forward, Americans have been living in a crime-free utopia where gumdrops fall from the trees. But I digress.
The Horror! The Horror! is a fun collection of words and images. It’s great to read the more obscure stories that haven’t been reprinted before, and to see the amazing artwork, a significant portion of which was done as work-for-hire by uncredited artists. The publishers of this book went all-out on lavish full-color reproductions of these vintage comics covers and pages. And while the accompanying text by editor Jim Trombetta, who selected the comics included in this collection, tends to be more than a tad overheated — his interpretations of the subtext and themes of the stories and artwork are sometimes just as wacky as the projections of repressed “experts” from the 1950s — it does serve to place the work in a social context. And for an even better glimpse into the social climate of the day, the book comes with a delightful bonus feature: a thirty-minute DVD that contains an episode of the TV show Confidential File, which aired in October of 1955. The episode is dedicated to the “problem” of horror comics and their corrupting effect on the nation’s youth. It’s presented as hard-hitting reportage, of course, but it’s a trove of pure comedy gold. The lengths these people went to in the effort to prove that comic books were a danger to society are wonderfully ludicrous. You will laugh and shake your head in disbelief. The program is made even more absurd in light of the fact that the ban on horror comics was already in place by 1955. The arseheads who made Confidential File were trying to kick the last bit of drama out of a dead horse.
Here’s a link to the book on Amazon.com. At twenty dollars, it’s a bargain. http://www.amazon.com/Horror-Comic-Books-Government-Didnt/dp/0810955954/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1290442289&sr=8-1
Fans of this stuff should also seek out Four Color Fear: Forgotten Horror Comics of the 1950s, edited by Greg Sadowski. Like The Horror! The Horror!, this book puts the focus on the non-EC horror titles that flooded the stands every month. These are straight-up reprints of the best stories from those comics, complete and uninterrupted by modern commentary. (The book does include end notes about the artists, authors, and stories.) While there’s a bit of overlap between the two books, Four Color Fear has many more stories in it. It’s well worth getting if you’re into vintage horror comics and want to read the stories that haven’t been reprinted before. My favorites include “Green Horror,” which is the tale of a murderously jealous cactus — yes, you read that correctly — and “The Flapping Head,” which begins with the following words: “There was a night when the ancient castle harbored three presences no human would want to see! The first was death itself — the second a phantom fated for a grisly mission — and the third was the thing that became THE FLAPPING HEAD!”
There’s more than twenty dollars’ worth of fun in this book, so it’s a bargain too. Here’s a link: http://www.amazon.com/Four-Color-Fear-Forgotten-Horror/dp/1606993437/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1290552347&sr=8-1
I’m currently hooked on an Xbox Live Arcade game called Limbo. When I saw a teaser trailer for this game, my first thought was “I must buy this.” Developed by Playdead Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark, and released exclusively for the Xbox 360, Limbo has garnered almost universal praise for its striking design aesthetic and unusual approach to gameplay. No other game looks like this. It bears a strong resemblance to silent cinema of the early 20th century, especially the German expressionist style, with its shadowy forbidding landscapes and eerily luminous skies. Picture the films of F.W. Murnau — Nosferatu, Faust, The Haunted Castle — and you’re in the right neighborhood. Limbo takes place in a flickering, grainy, black-and-white world. It’s a world that I’ve been drawn into, again and again, for the past several weeks.
The game is deceptively simple — at first. You awaken in a forest. The character you control is a little boy, depicted in silhouette, with a pair of glowing white eyes. None of the familiar tokens of video games are visible: no health bar, no weapons or ammo, no onscreen text to tell you what to do. Using three basic controls — the thumbstick to move, a button for jump and climb, and a button for grabbing and interacting with objects — you’re left to explore the environment, which will quickly prove to be just as weird and threatening as it looks.
Your objective is to move forward, avoiding or removing obstacles that lie in your path. Doing so requires manipulating the environment and the objects in it. Some obstacles are simple and easy to overcome; others are complex and call for experimentation, creativity, and lateral thinking. Limbo is, at its foundation, a platform/puzzle game, but its approach to the genre is unconventional. There is nothing cute here. There is nothing sexy here. One of the first things you’ll encounter is a corpse, swarmed by flies. And soon after that, you’ll encounter your death. Yes, the little boy will die, over and over, and in the most gruesome ways imaginable. He — which is to say, you — will be decapitated, drowned, crushed, torn to pieces, and run through with spikes. In fact, there are many puzzles that will be practically impossible to solve without trial and error, which in Limboland means “doing something crazy, just to see what will happen.” Most times, what will happen is that you’ll plunge headlong into the arms of the Grim Reaper. But unlike most games, you won’t be punished for doing so. There’s no “game over” screen. You’re not sent back to the beginning of the level or some distant save point. Death is but a learning experience here. In the blink of an eye, you’ll be reincarnated at the same puzzle where you met a grisly fate, so you can give it another go. If a puzzle proves to be particularly difficult, it helps to take a moment to remind yourself that all of the tools to allow you to progress are present in the environment. You just have to figure out how to use them.
I won’t mention anything more about the encounters you’ll have and the obstacles you’ll face. That would spoil the sense of discovery that is one of the rewards of the game. I’ll just conclude by saying that Limbo is one of the best games I’ve ever played. It haunts my thoughts. Check out the game trailer and see if it doesn’t hook you in, too:
At the recent Magic Collectors’ Association conference here in Chicago, I was chatting with a friend when suddenly I saw, over his shoulder and about fifteen feet away, the first magic set I ever owned — the set that I received as a gift when I was seven years old, the set that began my interest in magic. I immediately interrupted the conversation by pointing and saying “Holy crap, that’s my first magic set!” — not exactly the best conversational gambit, but fortunately my buddy happens to be a magician so he understood completely. What are the odds of running across the very item that placed you on one of the most formative paths in your life?
As it turned out, the item was for sale. “Can I look at it?” I asked. “Sure, I’ll open it up” said the man with the magic set. After removing the cardboard sleeve, he opened the vinyl-covered case. Another moment of astonishment: the set was complete and in pristine condition, exactly as I remembered it from decades ago. It looked if it had been magically transported from then to now.
My first magic set, the twin of the one I was looking at, is long gone. The box fell apart from use; the props inside wore out, broke, were lost or discarded. I have only one piece from that original set: a small vinyl rabbit that was meant to be produced out of a plastic top hat. I don’t know why I kept the little white rabbit, but now it serves as a fine reminder of how something small and seemingly insignificant can change a person’s life. The objects in that box led to two published books, a show currently running in a theater, and a position as an editor at a magazine. Magic introduced me to most of my friends, people who have had a profound influence on my life.
It’s fascinating and a bit eerie to consider this question: What would have happened if I had not received that magic set at age seven? Would I have found my way to magic by a different route? Or would I be in a very different place today, surrounded by different people? Would I be a different person?
I bought the magic set at that conference. Given the questions mentioned above, the chances of my standing in that spot in that room with that magic set seemed so unlikely that I had to think I was meant to find it. If that’s magical thinking, so be it. Thinking magically has gotten me this far, hasn’t it?
* * *
We offer the following exhibit as a glimpse into the strange psyche of the entity known as David Parr. Enter at your own risk.
Behold, the Mattel’s Magic Showstoppers Showcase, circa 1969:
Très Peter Max, no? The case folds out to form a table for performance, providing a work surface and keeping props out of view of the audience until needed:
Prepare yourself, for you are about to gaze upon the mysteries within:
A closer look, perhaps? If you dare:
Instruction booklet, magic wand, and my old friend the white rabbit. The two black parts in the upper left assemble to form the plastic top hat from which the rabbit makes his surprising appearance. The blue object in the lower left is for performing a classic magic effect in which two paper clips link in midair. The shiny black object in the lower right is a box in which a torn playing card may be restored, among other mysterious goings on. And the triangular object in the upper right is my favorite, a maze with a tiny metal ball inside. For mere mortals, guiding the ball to the center of the maze requires a full minute of effort, but the mage can complete the task in a few seconds — and with the maze held behind his back!
And here’s a closeup of my old pal:
I’m told that the rabbit is a modification of the Mattel’s Storybook Kiddles White Rabbit from Alice in Wonderland (Alice in Wonderliddle, as Mattel called it). The sculpt around the neck and the paintjob were changed on the magic rabbit, but he is in the same pose as the Storybook rabbit, hand raised to display his pocket watch or to greet a seven-year-old magician (or to ward off attackers). A clue to his ancestry is in the instruction booklet for the magic set. Illustrations for the effect titled “The Hare in the Hat” depict the rabbit wearing a little waistcoat with a high collar, exactly like Alice’s White Rabbit.
Thus we conclude our tour. We hope it was illuminating. This way to the egress.