Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Cliff Burton: 2/10/62 - 9/27/86

Photo:  Ross Halfin

"Bass solo.  Take one."
Thirty years ago today, the music world lost one its greatest talents.  Cliff Burton, bass player for Metallica and, by all accounts, all-around good dude, was tragically killed in a bus accident while the band was on tour in Sweden during the early morning hours of 9/27/86.  Those who knew him and fans who had loved him on Metallica's then three releases -- Kill 'Em All, Ride the Lightning, and the breakthrough Master of Puppets -- were devastated.  The world hasn't been the same since.

Cliff Burton was truly a unique and towering figure of mythic proportions; in just three short years (and at only 24yrs old!), he became a legend not only in the Metal scene, but he also garnered respect from music fans in general.  Sure, there are jaded Metal "experts" who yell the same tired insults like "Metallica died with Cliff" when it comes to the band's 90s output; however the fact of the matter was, Cliff was very eclectic in his musical tastes and, by all accounts, did not care what anyone else thought about image -- especially his own -- or musical style in general. One wonders if Metallica would recorded something like 1996's Load sooner...

The impact that Cliff had on Metallica is crystal clear in the musical and technical leaps and bounds made from Kill 'Em All to Ride The Lightning -- in just under a year, no less!  No one could have predicted that the same, pimply-faced teenagers pictured on the back cover of the Kill 'Em All LP would go on to write such masterpieces as "For Whom The Bell Tolls", "Fade To Black", "Creeping Death", and "The Call of Ktulu".  Of course, this growth and musical maturity would ultimately reach its nadir with 1986's Master of Puppets. 

Being only 4yrs old when Cliff was taken and not getting into Metallica until 1991's self-titled "The Black Album", the legend of Cliff already had an aura about it.  As my friends and I discovered the early records, pre-"Enter Sandman", I remember a sort of haze of confusion surrounding Burton's legacy.  At that point, none of us really had the full story of just what happened to him -- after all, we were all just pre-teens as we were discovering the band and learning their history.  We'd stare at the folding cassette booklets for those first three albums, recognizing younger versions of Hetfield, Ulrich, and Hammett...and staring with a sense of wonder at the photos of Cliff.  Through word of mouth from older classmates and through reading various bits in magazines, we started to get a better picture of Cliff.

Photo:  Ross Halfin
In particular, I've always been on the mindset that I have to know everything about whatever it is that I get "into" and, of course, Metallica was no different.  Since all of this was going down pre-internet, that meant I had to do some homework.  Somewhere along the way I stumbled on Metal Edge Presents special on Metallica and, low and behold, there was a pull-out poster of Cliff and, as fate would have it, he was wearing an original Dawn of the Dead t-shirt.  At that very moment, two of my favorite things in the world -- Metallica and Dawn of the Dead -- merged as though the Gods were telling me "THIS is the band you need to be into."  I was sold and became a lifelong Metallica fan right then and there in the magazine section of a supermarket in New Jersey.

Around this same time, my family and I (along with my best friend, Chris, also the kid who introduced me to Metallica) were vacationing in upstate Pennsylvania when my dad decided to take us on a surprise trip to nearby Binghamton, NY.  We were actually going to see a famous carousel, but Chris and I spotted a record store called Music City and begged Dad to pull over.  This place was a mecca for the burgeoning Metallica fans that we were -- let along MUSIC fans, as we had tons of "import" CDs (bootlegs), shirts, and bootleg cassette tapes at our disposable.  In the video section, there was a copy of The $19.98 Home Vid:  Cliff 'Em All.  At this point in my Metallica fandom, anything with Cliff was a welcomed treasure/history lesson, as I'd missed the 1992 edition of MTV's Metallica Rockumentary.

Check out that Pushead artwork!
That night, Chris and I literally bounced around the living room as we readied the VCR to play Cliff 'Em All -- to the point, where I got my foot wedged deep within the couch whilst jumping around with excitement before we even started the video!  Again, since this was before the internet, I had no idea what Cliff sounded like when he spoke or when he did back-up vocals live, so needless to say, I was glued to the TV as we poured through the copious amounts of fan-filmed footage contained on this incredible video compilation tribute.  When we finally caught a glimpse of the '86 MTV interview with James and Cliff (the original clip where it was taken from is below) and heard the bass player's philosophy on what Metallica was and should be . . . man alive! 

"We do what we wanna do, ya know?  If they consider that sellin' out, then . . . whatever."

Of course, the standout clip from Cliff 'Em All is, hands down, "For Whom The Bell Tolls" from Oakland, CA's Day On The Green festival 8/31/85.  Cliff's wailing bass intro is truly the stuff of legend and, from the moment I first saw it, I knew why he was so well-respected and missed by fans older than me! 

From that moment on, Cliff was pretty much the coolest dude in the room for me.  The first live recording featuring Cliff that I got my hands must have been the Puppets In El Paso bootleg, which was a show from El Paso, TX 5/12/86.  Hearing Cliff's bass work on "For Whom The Bell Tolls" (as well as the rest of the show) was truly something else . . .

Every year on the anniversary of his death, I find myself listening to either the first three records exclusively or live shows from his tenure with the band.  I've always thought it as a great way to honor the man, ya know?  On this morning's commute, the first three tracks were, of course, "(Anesthesia) - Pulling Teeth", "The Call of Ktulu", and "Orion". 

As a Metallica collector, I cherish every new live recording (audio or video) that I come across and the deluxe remastered box sets of both Kill 'Em All and Ride The Lightning were no different.  Each set contains a wealth of great quality live audio, as well as exclusive DVDs; in particular the Lightning set's DVD features the complete Metal Hammer Festival 9/15/85 gig (as glimpsed in Cliff 'Em All), including one of Cliff's best bass solos!  For any fan, this was truly like finding the Holy Grail of Metallica live DVDs -- a pro-shot show with Cliff!!  As it stands now, I look forward to what is in store for the eventual Master of Puppets deluxe remastered box set...

Today, it seems that Cliff's memory is alive and well in the Metallica world; in 2005, the band finally started playing "Orion" live (albeit just the first half, as they opened for The Rolling Stones) -- they finally played the whole song the following year when they celebrated the 20th anniversary of Master of Puppets by playing the entire album.  As a matter of fact, every time they play "Orion", James dedicates it to Cliff.  These days, they've been known to play "Whiskey In The Jar" as an encore and, again, dedicate it to Cliff as well.  I think it's safe to say that he's become the band's guardian angel, leading them when he was in the band and now guiding and protecting them from beyond. 

Clifford Lee Burton 2/10/62 - 9/27/86 
Rest In Peace.

Photo Credit:  Ross Halfin

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Stephen King: The First Name In Fear

In honor of Stephen King's 69th birthday today, I thought I'd take a moment to reflect on how his work has impacted me over the years.

As a kid,  lots of things scared me to death.  One thing in particular, which I'm sure has been well-documented on here was Michael Jackson's Thriller.  But, along side that classic short film/music video, there was also the dark ride known as Journey To The Center Of The Earth at Dorney Park, the thought of what might be lurking in the darkness of the staircase to our attic (which was right across from my bedroom door), and of course, the name Stephen King.

My first experience with the King himself was definitely while watching Creepshow, which is likely the first Horror film I ever saw -- it's certainly the earliest that I can recall.  Over time, with my memory growing as hazy as my hair color, I'm not entirely sure of the details as to why I was watching it or why I even wanted to watch it.  No matter, the one clear memory I have is being absolutely terrified by the Nathan Grantham zombie in the film's opening story "Father's Day" and also on Fluffy, the tiny yeti-like creature who springs from his wooden box prison to eat Adrienne Barbeau in "The Crate". 

Whenever those two monsters were on-screen, my tiny child frame would cower behind my dad's back as he sat on the couch.  My eyes would be clenched so tightly together that you'd think they'd burst from the pressure.  I'd also plug my ears with the intensity of trying to stop a leak in a damn, for fear of hearing "Where's my cake?" or the violent noises of Fluffy having a meal! 

And, just like that, Stephen King became associated with my nightmares as a child. 

Throughout the 80s and early 90s (ie: when I was a kid), it seemed like Stephen King's name was everywhere when it came to scary movies.  In no particular order, let's take a look, shall we?

1.) Cat's Eye (1985) -- although I didn't know it at the time, of course this was a King adaptation.  This anthology film directed by Cujo's Lewis Teague centers around a wandering stray cat who is just looking for his forever home.  Along his way, he pops into various peoples' lives and their vignettes unfold before the viewer.  The final tale though, featuring a young Drew Barrymore terrified by a diminutive troll-like monster was all I needed as a kid!  Although, the story with Robert Hays being forced to traverse the ledge of a Los Angeles high-rise stoked a different sort of fear in me!

2.) The Shining (1980) -- even today, this film seems like a right of passage for young people as my nieces and their friends desperately want to watch it.  Jack Nicholson's manic performance is arguably what stands out the most in the film version of course.  True be told, I'm sure I caught parts of this movie whenever it may have aired as part of WPIX-11's Shock-tober series of films in, er, the month of October.  But the first time I really sat down to watch it would be after talking about it for some time with my mom and then finally convincing her to just buy me the VHS as a Halloween present.  The overwhelming sense of dread throughout the film, coupled with the intense case of cabin fever that Jack Torrance begins to experience make it a truly unnerving film.  1997's remake/mini-series for ABC was also pretty good -- especially since it was truer to the original book.

3.) IT (1990) -- speaking of Stephen King TV mini-series, this was the one that started it all for me.  Sure, Tobe Hooper had done 'Salem's Lot in 1979, but this was the first one that I remember watching on TV as it aired.  Say what you want about Tim Curry's performance as Pennywise and how different it may be from the source material of King's book, but damn . . . it's pretty fucking scary -- especially for the then 8yr old version of me who watched it.  Of course, in the wake of IT's success, ABC continued a streak of fantastic mini-series adapting King's books; The Tommyknockers, The Stand, and The Langoliers were all Must-See-TV in my house! 

4.) Pet Sematary (1989) -- holy shit did this one affect me deeply (and it still does!).  As someone who naturally grows a close bond to pets -- in particular cats -- and has been known to be absolutely devastated when they die, Pet Sematary seems tailor-made for me and my nightmares.  I'll never forget buying the VHS of this on my own as a kid and watching it . . . the overwhelming sense of dread that enveloped my bedroom while I watched it (it probably didn't help to watch it with all the lights out of course) and the sight of poor Zelda, all twisted and cackling.  Man, nightmares for days! 

5.) Carrie (1976) -- the very first King adaptation (and some may say one of the best) thanks to this film, I cannot say nor hear the name "Carrie" without hearing it in King's own voice and getting just a little creeped out.  True story.  Obviously the most jarring part of this film in its shock ending, which still packs a bit of punch 40yrs later!

6.) Graveyard Shift (1990) -- probably not one of the better King adaptations, this film always felt very short in its running time to me.  Its monsterous rat/bat beast is pretty cool and, once the story turns to the underground cavernous mineshafts, it's a pretty no holds barred piece.  Stephen Macht's portrayal of Warwick (and that damn, odd-as-hell/almost out of place rap song/remix over the end credits repeating his "When's the last time ya bin to a grave-yahd?" line) was probably one of the creepier elements in this film. 

7.) Silver Bullet (1986) -- another early bit of nightmare fuel for me!  I first saw this on a family vacation to Phoenix to visit my aunt & uncle and my cousins.  At some point, someone wanted to rent a "scary movie" and I vividly remember going to the video store with them to find something....and even recall seeing the Thorn EMI video release poster for Dawn of the Dead in the window!  Anyway, the major standouts in this film were, of course, from the finale . . . no joke, for years, I'd get a little uneasy if I saw a floor vent, in fear that I'd drop the silver bullet needed to kill an attacking werewolf into it!  Also, that nightmare sequence where the entire church turns in werewolves?!  Forget it!

8.) Cujo (1983) -- while I can't really recall when I first saw this film, the entire idea of it terrified me.  Of course, I'd grown up around dogs (my aunt always had Shelties and at least one Doberman), but I rarely ever saw any St. Bernards . . . and if I ever did, I couldn't help but associate them with this film.  Looking back now though, I'm sure my tiny childhood brain confused some of this with the Joe Don Baker starrer The Pack, from 1977, in which a group of people are trapped by a rabid pack of dogs of all breeds.  Still though, there was that one time when my dad and I went to visit one of his buddies and, for whatever reason, he wasn't home but his two Dobermans came out to say hello...one of them jumped on me and pinned me to the ground, most likely just licking my face with excitement (but I perceived it with absolute terror!).

9.) Creepshow 2 (1987) -- Is it a cop-out to list the original Creepshow in the opening of this piece and then pull out the sequel as well?  I don't care.  All I have to say is "Thanks for the ride lady".  Yes, The Hitchhiker story used to terrify me, especially that line and the titular wanderer himself.  In fact, I remember it taking years for me to finally be able to watch this film (along with the original of course) without being scared to death -- this was another WPIX-11 Shock-tober entry!  Hell, even one of the film's trailers or TV spots used to creep me out; it featured The Creep (I'm guessing it was Savini in the makeup he wore in the film?) sitting in a crowded movie theater, turning to his right and inviting "you" to come join him for Creepshow 2.  Nope! No thanks!

10.) The Dead Zone (1983) -- this one is kind of a cheat as the film itself doesn't really scare me in the way the other do.  It was more or less just seeing the VHS cover in the video store as a kid.  I had no idea what the movie was about, but the title and seeing Stephen King's name above it, was enough to give me the creeps.  That font though... 

In closing, there's one final cool tie that forever imbeds Stephen King with me....you know that back cover photo on the Christine dust jacket?  That was taken in one of the self-wash bays at the old Frenchtown car-wash, right down the road from my house!  It's funny to look at the photo now and instantly remember those old bays (the car-wash was demolished and rebuilt years ago), but now I shudder at literally just how close King was to my house...the man who created so many nightmares for me was right down the road!!  The story goes that a car collector across the Delaware River in Pennsylvania had a car similar to Christine's make and model (or at least for the purposes of the photo shoot) and, as luck had it, the Frenchtown car-wash had bays similar to that of an old garage, so it was decided to do the shoot right then and there.  Pretty cool.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Rob Zombie's 31 (2016)

Rob Zombie can be a pretty divisive figure in pop culture, whether for his music career or his film-making career; odds are that if you say his name, you'll get either a Love Him or Hate Him reaction.  The best part about that though?  He doesn't care either way. 

His latest feature film, 31,  -- which debuted last night in a series of advanced screenings sponsored by Fathom Events -- is the result of a crowd-funded production and, for my money anyway, it's his most fully realized production to date.  That last part is a bit ironic given that the original genesis for the film came out of frustration from the constant stalling of his 70s era Philadelphia Flyers bio-pic, Broad Street Bullies where he threw out what he thought was the dumbest, most simple concept for a film -- essentially, "a bunch of people are kidnapped on Halloween night and forced to survive against a bunch of murderous clowns."

31's story picks up with a group of carnies on a cross-country road trip -- on October 31, 1976 -- in search of fine-tuning their show when they're suddenly accosted by masked clowns and forced to fight for their very lives under the orchestration of three mysterious English people dressed in upper crust, powdered wigs.  Again, a very simple premise that works in Zombie's favor this time around. 

Once again, Zombie peppers his film with familiar genre faces and various "Zombie Players" seen in his previous films.  The cast breakdown includes:  Meg Foster as Venus Virgo, the pseudo-mother figure to the group; Jeff Daniel Phillips as Roscoe, who has showbiz dreams beyond just being the mechanic of the group; Sheri Moon Zombie as Charly, the group's free-spirited sexpot.   New faces in the cast include Lawrence Hilton-Jacobs as Panda Thomas, the Jamaican-accented heart of the group, and Kevin Jackson as Levon, a sort of elder statesman of the group.  There's a definite chemistry among the five main players and the audience genuinely cares for them as the picture progresses. 

Our heroes, ladies and gentlemen.
On the flipside, the villains are comprised of several more returning Zombie veterans:  Malcolm McDowell as Father Murder, Judy Geeson as Sister Dragon, Lew Temple as Psycho-Head, E.G. Daily as Sex-Head, Daniel Roebuck as Pastor Victor, Ginger Lynn as Cherry Bomb, and Richard Brake as the show-stealing Doom-Head.  As a new-comer to the villain side, Pancho Moler also shines as the diminutive (and aptly named) Sick-Head.
Malcolm McDowell as Father Murder
The most obvious comparison for 31 lies in The Most Dangerous Game -- not in The Running Man, which Zombie admitted that he hasn't seen in probably 25 years during a post-show Q & A at last night's screening.  Our heroes have 12 hours to survive a labyrinth of dead-ends in an abandoned factory, all while being hunted by various 'Head' characters:  the Nazi-obsessed Sick-Head, the chainsaw-wielding brothers Psycho-Head and Schizo-Head, the sinful Death-Head and his non-platonic partner Sex-Head, and of course, the Nosferatu-inspired Doom-Head.

For some, there may be a hesitancy to avoid this film, thinking that it's just another "Rob Zombie torture film" and, while 31 initially starts out with the sort of bottom-of-the-barrel "humorous" dialogue you'd find scrawled across the fecal-stained walls of a gas station bathroom, thankfully, this isn't more of the same throughout!  Make no mistake:  for fans of 80s Slasher films (and a handful of 70s drive-in pictures like Last House On The Left and The Hills Have Eyes), this is a straight-up Fight For Your Life Revenge picture!  Our heroes more than hold their own against the sadistic hunters who prey upon them, often dispatching them in more and more gruesome ways while advancing to the next scene (not unlike The Running Man though).
As Charly, Sheri Moon Zombie fights to survive 31!
Dialogue-wise, Sheri Moon Zombie has some great "let's get these fuckers" type of one-liners, Lew Temple has some hilarious bits as Psycho-Head (his brief scene in Rob Zombie's Halloween remake still cracks me up!), Jeff Daniel Phillips throws out some fine Reluctant Hero lines, but of course, the majority of the page-chewing goes to Richard Brake as Doom-Head.  The film starts off with a fantastic black and white monologue as Doom-Head seemingly breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. 

Richard Brake as Doom-Head
Speaking of Doom-Head, my immediate impression was:  "He'd make a GREAT Halloween costume" and "Move over Otis Firefly and Captain Spaulding, there's a new sheriff in town!"  Welsh actor Brake (known by most as Joe Chill, the man who killed Bruce Wayne's parents in Batman Begins) owns every single scene he appears in whether he's having a not-so-intimate moment with a cheap prostitute in a low-rent flophouse room, smearing on pancake makeup to prepare for his own hunt, or stealthily stalking his victims in the film's second half -- his performance is a tour de force!

Of course, this isn't to say that 31 is a perfect film through and through though; there's a lot of hand-held, borderline shaky-cam cinematography that made several of the fight scenes a bit confusing and distracting; as mentioned before, there's some of that vial, infantile dialogue that appears in every Zombie film; and the picture almost  veers into the sort of dream-like, cinefile art-house scenery which did in Zombie's Halloween II and The Lords of Salem for a few folks.

More of its strengths are in some incredibly creepy make-ups for the hunters; Doom-Head, with his crusty white pancake paint and bloodied nose & mouth and, surprisingly Sex-Head with her beautiful, yet disturbing mime-like face paint.  There's also a beautifully filmed opening credits sequence, utilizing vintage filmmaking techniques and showcasing Zombie's love for the craft!   31's greatest strength though, lies in its overall simplicity.  The story doesn't get bogged down in backstory or origins -- we never do find out who the three upper crust people are or why they're playing the seemingly-annual titular game of 31 (it's simple:  for their own amusement) and we never learn anything more about the various 'Head' characters outside of the hinted at fact that they come to work when they're called upon.  However, there are enough unanswered questions and open-ended fates that leave the barn doors wide open to revisit these characters in the future...  

Jeff Daniel Phillips' Roscoe takes a final stand.
In the end, Rob Zombie's 31 is an entertaining funhouse ride which showcases his growing talents as a writer/director.  The film also shines with probably the strongest principle cast Zombie has ever had at his disposal.  Ultimately, it's unfortunate that so many people will likely pass on the film just because Rob Zombie's name is attached to it; if it was any other writer/director, 31 would probably be the foundation for this decade's Saw or Hostel franchise.

See it!