Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown”

great-pumpkin-50-anniversaryIt is 50 years to the day that It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown debuted on CBS, hitting television screen on October 27, 1966. In the five decades since its debut, Great Pumpkin has remained one of the iconic Charlie Brown stories, and as the third Peanuts animated special ever made, it has remained highly influential on the public perception of Charles Schulz’s comic strip, second only to the classic A Charlie Brown Christmas. And with good reason, this is perfect Peanuts storytelling that encapsulates everything special about this one-of-a-kind series.

Like all the great Peanuts specials, It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is simple in its narrative style, restrained in its comedic tone, and primarily concerned with the inner lives of its beautiful characters. Set in the days leading up to Halloween and Halloween night itself, the special focuses equally on Linus Van Pelt and Charlie Brown, who each have their struggles surrounding the holiday. For Linus, it’s his often mocked belief in The Great Pumpkin, who he believes visits good boys and girls every Halloween in pumpkin patches to reward their faith. For Charlie, it’s his self-esteem and anxieties surrounding being finally invited to a party on Halloween night. It’s all informed by the classic Peanuts approach of having a sweet message supplied by child voice actors, which can never be completely successfully replicated outside of the franchise.

While Great Pumpkin may not pack the emotional resonance of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it’s informed by a subversive commentary on faith. It’s interesting to see how Linus, the stalwart symbol of wisdom and knowledge in Peanuts, is troubled by something as silly as The Great Pumpkin, which can only be assumed is an orange and round version of the Easter Bunny. While Linus is often the most stable member of the Peanuts gang, his belief in The Great Pumpkin is shown as folly here. But while the other kids mock him, the story itself is never mocking. In fact, Linus’ resolute faith in the Great Pumpkin feels equally admirable and silly.

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Gotham City Will Eat You Alive – “Batman: The Black Mirror”

batman-the-black-mirror-comicThe ideas of Batman and Gotham City are forever intertwined. For Bruce Wayne, Gotham’s crime and corruption are what led to the murders of his parents, which forever drive his war as Batman. For Gotham, Batman is an icon of hope, battling those that would take advantage of the innocent and inspiring its people to embrace something better. While that cycle may be one of hope and heroism, there is a darker side to it as well. One of voracious darkness that consumes those that try and wage war against it.

It’s this abyss within Gotham that writer Scott Snyder and artists Jock and Francesco Francavilla dove into with their modern classic comic book storyline Batman: The Black Mirror, which was originally published in the pages of Detective Comics #871 through #881 in 2011. Its dark twists and unrelenting gothic nature make it one of the newest essential era stories for Batman fans of all kinds.

Set during a time in DC Comics when Dick Grayson (also known as Nightwing, the former Robin) has taken on the identity of Batman in Gotham City while Bruce Wayne operates as Batman elsewhere in the world, The Black Mirror focuses on the toll that Gotham City itself takes on Grayson, as well as on Police Commissioner Jim Gordon. Using a dueling narrative, The Black Mirror switches back and forth between the two men, as Grayson fights against several new criminal operations that redefine crime in Gotham while Gordon deals with the return of his son, James Gordon, Jr., a man in his early 20s whose sociopathic tendancies may or may not have led to murder. As their stories become more and more intertwined, they must reconcile themselves with the inability to ever completely understand Gotham and the almost living darkness that the city breeds within people.

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“Bone Tomahawk” Review

Terrifying Horror Powered by Stellar Performances

bone-tomahawk-western-reviewBlending two genres like western and horror can be a major challenge due to the iconic elements each type of film and the demands of their fans. In the worst cases, the results are strange tonal issues and an inability to fully please any audience completely. But when done right, the resulting concoction can be a potent blend that feels like nothing else. Combining pitch perfect acting, strong characters, on-point Western themes, and shocking horror, Bone Tomahawk is a brutal yet honest western horror that leaves a lingering mark.

Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, Bone Tomahawk follows four men on the trail of a brutal, canabalistic tribe that has abducted several people from their small town, including the wife of one of the men. As Sheriff Franklin Hunt (Kurt Russell), Arthur O’Dwyer (Patrick Wilson), John Brooder (Matthew Fox), and Deputy Chicory Kory (Richard Jenkins) make their way across the wilderness, they encounter unexpected dangers while making their way ever closer to a confrontation that is far more deadly than they could ever imagine.

While the terrifying nature of the troglodytic clan at the center of the film is one of Bone Tomahawk’s most haunting elements, what makes Zahler’s film work so well is that it takes its time in setting up its premise and exploring its characters. While sudden and irrevocable violence permeates the film, often looming over the heads of its characters like the Sword of Damocles, the film is far more interested in examining the inner lives of the four men who ride out in search of those who were taken. In doing so, we are given greater reason to invest in each character than what is often seen with the most clichéd horror films. These aren’t stock characters set up simply for the enjoyment of a gruesome kill, but rather fully formed individuals facing a terrifying ordeal. In doing so, the fear becomes far more personal and the stakes all the higher.

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Jason Voorhees: Conservative Icon of the ‘80s

The slasher subgenre is one of the most emblematic film movements of the 1980s. Filled with mass murderers taking out hapless teens and adults through the most gruesome means possible, slasher horror movies satisfied the seemingly insatiable bloodlusts of audiences through numerous low budget franchises, primarily in the United States. And no cinematic killer was more purely emblematic of the genre’s simultaneously prudish and vulgar nature than Jason Voorhees – the unstoppable, hockey mask-loving killer at the center of the Friday the 13th film series.

Starring to various degrees in a total of 12 films across three decades, Jason’s heyday came in the ‘80s, where eight Friday the 13th films made their mark. The sheer volume is staggering, mostly thanks to the cheap production values and often assembly line-like nature of how these many sequels were thrown together year after year. But audiences ate it up, quickly turning the grotesque killer into an iconic monster along with fellow ‘80s slasher villains Freddy Krueger and Michael Myers, both of whom starred in numerous sequels that played with the slasher subgenre’s format far more than the Friday franchise. While the films didn’t blaze any new trails, Jason’s fan-pleasing kills and the series’ commitment to fulfilling the tropes of the genre kept audiences coming back time and time again.

However, while audiences were drawn to the series’ often lascivious elements of sex, drugs, murder, and mayhem, the Friday the 13th series and Jason himself operated with a sort of crudely Protestant morality that reflected the message being put forward by then-President Ronald Reagan and much of mainstream American culture at the time. Those who engaged in premarital sex, smoked the wicked Mary Jane, drank before the legal age, or otherwise represented a lifestyle out of the mainstream were clearly marked for death in these myriad movies. By providing a steady stream of vicarious thrills for its audience, the horror series could appeal to the growing wave of counterculture and alternative lifestyles while still applying mainstream America’s moral judgments to such behaviors.

In doing so, the Friday the 13th series and Jason Voorhees himself became emblematic of the growing rift in mainstream American culture during the ‘80s. By the time the decade came to a close, Jason had outlived his relevance, even if the franchise kept going. But his vivid kills and oddly relevant violence remain coarsely potent today.

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10 Great Horror Scenes in Non-Horror Movies

Like all genres, the elements and iconography of horror can seep into and inform the thematic, stylistic, and narrative choices made in stories told in other genres. From aesthetics to entire story beats, horror can be found far afield from its typical trappings. Sometimes, films operating in other genres can even take a time out from their stories to create an entire scene that delves into pure horror.

While these detours into horror may seem strange and out of place, they can make a massive impression on audiences and add far greater complexities to their films when done right. The following 10 scenes are just a few examples of great horror moments in non-horror movies, but there are countless more in the history of cinema. From sudden outbursts of monster mayhem to overwhelming dread in the face of evil, these scenes can stand up to even the best of classic horror.

For some of the scariest scenes in horror, read 12 Truly Terrifying Movie Scenes, and for the best in children’s films, read 10 Great Traumatizing Moments in Kids Movies.

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Inescapable Horror in the Flesh – John Carpenter’s “The Thing”

the-thing-1982-reviewDirector John Carpenter’s 1982 horror film The Thing is an unquestionable masterpiece of the genre, not just because of its superior execution, but because of its deeply resonant themes of paranoia and fear in the modern world.

Written by Bill Lancaster and based on the 1938 science fiction novella Who Goes There? by John W. Campbell, Jr., this tense, terrifying piece of sci-fi horror was originally lambasted by many critics at the time of its release as being little more than gross-out schlock. Beyond its critical putdowns, The Thing was a box office failure, being just one of the many sci-fi films of 1982 to be washed away in the tide of E.T.’s massive success at the theater. But in the more than three decades since, The Thing has been reappraised in both the horror community and the mainstream.

That’s not just because of Carpenter’s stellar direction (this is easily the director at the height of his game), or the awesomely gruesome special effects done by Rob Bottin (with an assist on the dog creature by Stan Winston). It’s because The Thing crafts an inescapable sense of paranoia in its audience to match the same feeling in its protagonists, ratcheting up the tension to a nearly unbearable degree, which is bolstered by the horrifying nature of the alien menace at the center of the story. Combined with its desolate Antarctic setting, The Thing is at once both jarringly horrifying and utterly engrossing.

Set in a remote U.S. outpost in the Antartic, The Thing sees a group of researchers infiltrated by an alien lifeform that assimilates and imitates other species. The parasitic organism can look like any living creature it consumes and only reveals itself when there is no other choice, bursting into terrifying displays of body horror at its finest. As the men begin to realize the incredible amount of danger that they, and the world at large, are in, distrust and discord are sown amongst them while escalating encounters with the unspeakable horror at hand slowly pick them off one by one.

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The 20 Best Horror Movie Posters

Great poster art conveys the central ideas, overarching themes, and raw emotions of films in a single image. For horror films, that often comes down to distilling a sense of terror into a haunting, unforgettable work of art that catches the eyes and emotions of audiences. While there are plenty of clichéd elements to be found in horror posters (just like the clichéd elements that appear in the movies themselves again and again), like bloody knives, skulls, and shadows, the best art in the genre either crafts bracingly new concepts to reinvigorate the iconography of these films, or uses these iconic elements to their most effective degree.

The following 20 horror movie posters represent the best of the best from across the decades and have made a lasting impact on genre fans. From the defining works of the genre to newer entries that have flipped horror on its head, these horror posters have haunted nightmares and inspired creators the world over.

Have your own personal favorite horror movie posters? Let me know in the comments!

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“Phantasm: Remastered” Review

The Dark Specter of Death Remastered in 4K

phantasm-remastered-coscarelli-reviewPhantasm: Remastered is now available to rent or purchase on Amazon or iTunes and is in limited theatrical release.

Shot on a shoestring budget and comprised of a crew of ambitious amateurs, creator Don Coscarelli’s Phantasm was released into theaters in 1979. In the nearly four decades since, the terrifying, reality-warping battle against the mysterious tall man has been carried on through four sequels and the series has influenced numerous films and filmmakers alike in the time since. Now, Phantasm has been painstakingly remastered after years of waiting in the purgatory of poor quality transfers and hastily assembled home video releases despite its passionate and loyal following. Through a 4K remaster made possible through the assistance of J.J. Abrams (a lifelong fan of the franchise) and the production company Bad Robot, Phantasm: Remastered looks and sounds far better than ever.

While its story is simple and limited due to the tiny independent production of the film, Phantasm has stayed in the minds of fans for decades because of its potent themes and perception-altering approach to horror. Set in a small Oregon town, Phantasm tells the story of 13-year old Mike Pearson (A. Michael Baldwin), who is being raised by his 24-year-old brother Jody (Bill Thornbury) after the deaths of their parents. But the suspicious death of a friend causes their paths to cross with an ominous undertaker known only as The Tall Man (Angus Scrimm), whose strange powers and disturbing plans for the bodies of the recently deceased threaten their lives in an increasingly dangerous game of cat and mouse.

While the micro budget of Coscarelli’s film and the inexperience of its writer/director are evident in the limited locations, small yet effective kills, and often stilted acting, Phantasm gets by on sheer verve, the terrifying notions at its core, and the nightmare logic that is employed in the film’s composition. Like most low budget horror films of decades past, part of the movie’s charm is due to the can-do attitude and sheer vision on display thanks to its creator’s passion and attitude. That’s still evident today, and Coscarelli wisely never steps outside the limits of his budget, which has helped the movie to age as well as it clearly has.

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The Technicolor Nightmare of “Suspiria”

suspira-colors-analyzedSome horror films terrify through inescapably realistic fears. Others create monsters that amplify primordial terrors to the umpteenth degree. But some, like writer and director Dario Argento’s 1977 Italian giallo horror film Suspiria, envelope the viewer in an inescapable reality-bending world akin to a nightmare.

Telling the story of an American ballerina named Suzy (Jessica Harper), who comes to a German ballet school only to be caught up in a twisted and mystical murder mystery, Suspiria isn’t a film that astonishes through its narrative but rather through its terrifying style. While this is a movie that slowly feeds its audience clues concerning the central mystery at hand, the point of Argento’s blood-soaked masterpiece is to drench the audience in mood and an inescapable terror. Yes, the central characters themselves are seeking to get to the bottom of what is actually happening at this clearly sinister ballet academy, but the experience of shock and awe far outweighs any audience desire to discover the truth about this admittedly paltry mystery.

From the very first frames, there is something off-kilter about the world of Suspiria. As Suzy arrives in the country on her way to the academy, a simple German airport is bathed in nightmarish reds and blues while prog rock band Goblin’s iconic theme song slowly kicks in. As our protagonist makes her way into a Technicolor rain-soaked night, the audience is pulled into a heightened and wild world. Nothing is quite what it seems and as the academy becomes more and more insane around Suzy, we find ourselves trying to grab hold and make sense of our surroundings, just like the protagonist.

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“Luke Cage” Season 1 Spoiler-Free Review

Powerful, Relevant Themes Weighed Down by Boring Storytelling

marvels-luke-cage-season-oneAfter his debut in 2015’s Netflix series Jessica Jones, iconic Marvel Comics hero Luke Cage stars in his own eponymous show from the streaming service. With a more relevant than ever focus on black lives and community violence, Luke Cage finds itself empowered by resonant themes and simultaneously hampered by some poor storytelling choices.

Set in Harlem, New York, and following the life of Luke Cage (Mike Colter) – a bulletproof and super strong African American man who is trying to make sense of his life and powers – Netflix’s Luke Cage is just as much about one man trying to do what is right as it is about a community being pulled between good and evil. And into this struggle come crime boss Cornell “Cottonmouth” Stokes (Mahershala Ali), councilwoman Mariah Dillard (Alfre Woodard), arms dealer Diamondback (Erik LaRay Harvey), and NYPD detective Misty Knight (Simone Missick).

As a whole, Luke Cage is strongest in its themes and characters and often weakest in its narrative and action. From the get go, the series hones in on its most powerful ideas, many of which are encapsulated in the character of Luke himself. From stunning tragedies early on in the show to powerful speeches concerning the value of black lives (Colter’s speech at the end of episode 2 concerning Crispus Attucks is incredibly moving and is possibly the emotional highpoint of the entire season), it’s clear that Luke Cage and showrunner Cheo Hodari Coker have many important things to say about today’s society. However, these themes slowly move to the background as the season progresses, switching focus to the main storyline and its action sequences, neither of which are strong enough to suitably replace the powerful metaphors found at the series’ beginning.

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