Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Lights, Action, Tesla!

Steampunk has brought about a renewed fascination with Nikola Tesla and even Hollywood has noticed with 2006's The Prestige directed by Christopher Nolan starring David Bowie as Tesla. But this isn't the first time Tesla in some form haunted the silver screen. In James Whales' 1931 Frankenstein and sequel The Bride of Frankenstein we were introduced by the special effects wizard Kenneth Strickfaden to Tesla Coils that were actually built by Tesla himself.

Strickfaden was responsible for all the laboratory equipment used in both films and in subsequent films for Universal and also MGM's Wizard of Oz. Acquiring the Tesla Coils and constructing elaborate machines that whirled about fingers of electricity was an engineering feat and the results are still to this day are rather spectacular to watch and they were also dangerous. Karloff was not fond of the electrical effects and Strickfaden allegedly doubled for him in some of the more electrifying scenes.

Even today Tesla's name is invoked with geekish reverence as in the ScyFy series Warehouse 13 where the agents carry a Tesla Gun. Though I can only fathom what Tesla would make of this cultural fascination one thing is without a doubt, Edison, his rival never achieved near the homage Tesla has either in pop culture or in perhaps history itself. Maybe it is due to the man's eccentric nature or his rogue independence or both, but Tesla's name has almost become esoteric and otherworldly with rumors of FBI files that were confiscated at his death. Tales of Death Rays and other inventions that not only could bring harmonic power to the masses but destruction as well began to surface from files allegedly kept by the government in some secret warehouse. Sounds like something from a TV series eh?

In a world that seeks to move away from fossil fuels perhaps a more serious eye now turns to Tesla. Recent years have seen electric cars that can travel 200 miles on a charge are being manufactured by Tesla Motors before any of the major car companies even considered it. Tesla once said that the future belonged to him, with his place in history secure and his name associated with Steampunk and bandied about in film his cultural impact is evident but his legacy and his inventions is what will make the prophecy complete. Then again, Dr. Gordbort's Moon hating Death Ray based on Tesla technology may just do us all in.

Sunday, July 18, 2010


Occasionally I throw in a movie review but I need to warn you about a few things concerning my review skills. First, I am not a reviewer nor a critic. Second, when I really like something, I really like something and when I dislike something, I really dislike it. Objectivity sometimes is not one of my better skills. So I hope I don't come off as some blue blooded Horror Connoisseur. I'm not. I do love Supernatural Horror though and it is my favorite genre. Now that all that is out of the way, here is a movie I hesitantly recommend, Parasomnia.

Parasomnia came out in 2008, never made much of a dent then went back into obscurity only to recently be released on DVD. It is written and directed by William Malone whose past credits include the remake of House on Haunted Hill. Always on the look out for obscure Horror that doesn't look like it was shot on a hand held cam corder I was interested and when I saw the cast I knew it was a must see for me. In fact I would surmise that much of the funds of this meager budgeted film was spent on the cast. Jeffery Combs, Timothy Bottoms, Sean Young, Patrick Kilpatrick and Kathryn Leigh Scott from Dark Shadows fame was a pretty impressive list for a low budget movie.

Now if you noticed I said I was hesitant to recommend this movie, it's true I am a tad hesitant. The concept behind the movie, the effects of the dream world as well as the inspirations that they are drawn from are very strong and potential. If this film had a proper budget it could have been so much more and in this is its failing. Not to sound too harsh but the lighting and the stark coloring in this movie rob it of its atmosphere and even sense of space. This is a movie that demanded a better budget for what what they did, you can definitely see the creative inspirations and also see where this movie could have been so much more.

The reason I do recommend this DVD is due to the imagery. A dream world inspired by polish artist Beksinski and also the inclusion of the automatons of Thomas Kuntz. Malone knows imagery I will give him that. Parasomnia was inspired by the classic Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and I have a feeling a slight nod to Clive Barker's Lord of Illusions. Working with a decent script and fine actors, Kilpatrick is at his sombre, creepy best as the serial killer hypnotist though I sadly found Jeffery Combs under used in another supporting cop role, the movie is a homage to the roots of pschyo~supernatural horror. The plot contains a female somnambulist and a childhood encounter that binds two people as lovers and locked into a dreamscape under the control of a Master Hypnotist. In this sense I applaud his efforts and the story is creative and in its own way a novel approach. The whole concept was pregnant with potential. It is just hard to get past it was shot in mainly in a warehouse and in that is its failing.

I will say this though, compared to the glut of cheaply made horror films that are flooding the market and the DVD rental shelves I will say Parasomnia was a pleasant surprise. It was a bold move to make such a creative vision so cheaply and hope for the best. It is a film that you will force yourself to like despite its shortcomings and one that will make you frustrated because it could have been so much more.

Just a note: Occasionally I will share a movie review here and there when I feel like I have found something that deserves attention. After all my intention is to point you into directions and discover things for oneself. If my nudge points you to something that you find interesting, curious or fascinating, then that was my intention.

You can purchase Parasomnia here at amazon or better yet give it a rent if you can find it in your local video rental.

The Infamous Black Cat

Is the Stygian feline a messenger of ill fortune? Actually it depends upon where you live. The stigma that has shadowed the black cat goes back to medieval times when Pope Gregory IX declared that the devil appears to his subjects in the form of a black cat resulting in thousands of cats being slaughtered out of fear. Yet in a sense of ironic justice one could also point to the Black Death that plagued Europe was the result of Europe's attitude towards felines. Since cats were considered outcasts and shunned, the rat population had no obstacle in spreading the plague which then ran rampant killing multitudes. Perhaps there is a moral lesson here, cats just might have the final say.

The Puritans didn't help foster any kind will either to black cats. Black cats were considered familiars to witches and were burned with their mistresses. Just think, that crazy old cat lady down the road would have been put to the fire for her affection for her feline friends. Since then the black cat has carried the reputation of ill will and bad fortune if one crosses your path, unless you live in Britain where if a black cat crosses your path then good fortune will follow as relayed in this folk poem:

"Black cat cross my path;
Good fortune bring to home and hearth;
When I am away from home;
Bring me luck wherever I roam."

King Charles I owned a black cat that he favored so much that he had a 24 hour guard held over it. When the feline died King Charles I exclaimed his good fortune was over and he was arrested the next day and the rest is history. In Scotland a black cat found on your front porch brings about prosperity and fishermen's wives kept black cats to keep their husbands from harm when they were out at sea. These cats were considered very precious and often stolen possibly by other fishermen's wives for their good omen. In Ancient Egypt the feline goddess Bast had a preference for the inky feline and of course cats were held in high esteem and it was actually an executionable offense to harm one. There have been thousands of feline mummies discovered in tombs and burial chambers in Egypt, obviously the cat enjoyed prominence and by their aloof behavior one may conclude that they have not forgotten it and wish to remind us of it.

In advertising the black cat has enjoyed some prominence as well. Black Cat Cigarettes and Black Cat Fireworks are among several products that have the feline as their spokesperson. The black cat seems to symbolize what is "cool", mysterious, sexual and sensuous. Mysticism and magic have always been great advertising vehicles and the black cat seems to be intertwined with arcane symbolism that hints at a sense of power and independence. There is also the Halloween references of course where millions of Greeting Cards, wrapping paper and candies bear its image to conjure the otherworldly. If the black cat had an agent, the cat would be literally a fat wealthy cat.

In literature the black cat has had some notable renown. The author Neil Gaiman has Morpheus the Dream Lord appear as a black cat leading the feline minions of the world to dream the world back to when cats actually ruled and man served them. In another story from the Graphic Novel Collection "Creatures of the Night", Neil Gaiman's story "The Price" beautifully illustrated by Michael Zulli (my personal fav Sandman artist) tells of a stray black cat that appears on the author's front porch one day and stays. The narrator tells of how the cat begins to gets wounds and scars that worsen by the day until he stays up one night to find out that the stray black has been defending the narrator's home from the devil himself.

But if any one story taps into the psyche surrounding the four footed shadow it would be Edgar Allan Poe's "The Black Cat." The narrator suffers from addiction to drink and envies the bond between the cat and his wife. The cat, named Pluto, is abhorred by the narrator for its affections and is repulsed to the point of derangement of the feline mystical spell that seems to develop between his wife and the animal. In a fit he cuts out one of its eyes with a pen knife and while in a maniac frenzy he attempts to kill the cat with an ax but instead his wife suffers the blow. To obscure his deed he walls up the corpse in the cellar and when the police come to investigate the feline's wailing is heard from behind the edifice, for he had unwittingly walled up the cat with his slain wife. Remember the moral lesson from the Black Plague?

Below is an excerpt from Stuart Gordon's episode from The Masters of Horror, "The Black Cat" starring Jeffery Combs who does an extraordinary job as Poe even under heavy makeup. This clip is taken from an actual event in Poe's life, the incident at the bar between him and the innkeeper.


Creatures of the Night by Neil Gaiman and Michael Zulli

Masters of Horror: Stuart Gordon's The Black Cat

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The De-Evolution of the Hearse

Hearse: Pronunciation: \ˈhərs\Function: noun: Etymology: Middle English herse, from Anglo-French herce harrow, frame for holding candles, from Latin hirpic-, hirpex harrow
Date: 14th century
1 a : an elaborate framework erected over a coffin or tomb to which memorial verses or epitaphs are attached b : a triangular candelabra for 15 candles used especially at Tenebrae
2 a archaic : coffin b obsolete : bier 2
3 : a vehicle for conveying the dead to the grave (Merriam~Webster)

What was once an elegant mode of transportation for the deceased to be toured through public to their final place of rest has in modern times taken an almost antiseptic, sterile appearance. Much of this maybe due to many factors, one, death is something no one likes to talk about in this day of modern medicine and increased life spans due to science and people becoming more health oriented. There is nothing wrong with this attitude, but death still remains a reality reminding us of our mortality even though it is often a subject many do not like to broach.

As I shared before about Funerary Violinists, this wasn't always so, death was a ever present reality and society's approach was much more about tradition and mourning was considered a reverent act. During the Victorian Era it is no small wonder that Hearses were much more decorative and painted somber black, drawn by black horses such as this hearse that carried Lincoln's body. Vessels of mourning, ornately carved with large glass windows revealing the casket of the deceased, these carriages were works of craftsmanship and art.

It was in the early 1900's that hearses began to become horseless. In Paris electric hearses arrived first on the scene followed by petrol powered ones here in the U.S. These early models still retained the somber trappings of elegant grief and of course were very expensive. Due to the cost of a single hearse it was not uncommon for funeral homes to actually share one hearse between themselves such as this 1916 model. The hearse retained a certain dignity and this sense of artistic design carried on for many years as emulated in the 1930's by Packard and Cadillac.

In the 1960's Hearse still remained distinctive but gone was the sense of ornate style most likely due to it being more efficient to modify an existing model of a Cadillac than to build a specific design. It was also during this time this model of hearse doubled as an ambulance also known by the slang term the "meat wagon". Today hearses are modified from an existing model, below is a clip from the History Channel giving a brief history of the hearse and how it is made today.

Though the hearse today has taken on a sterile appearance, the aesthetics of the early hearse are not forgotten by some such as this classic hearse that has been restored and modified by an owner in Whitby Scotland.

There are also many hearse clubs such as The Black Widow Hearse Club and others that want to keep the history of the hearse alive and at they have built a horse drawn hearse from scratch. In today's society we have so many wonderful advances but often I find myself wondering is we are not becoming aesthetically void by approaching the minimalistic craze that is so often seen in modern architecture. Where once everything from buildings and automobiles took on such a distinctive character that they almost became an entity themselves to a now today's colder more impersonal feel. This could be why genres like Steampunk have surfaced to make the impersonal, personal again.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Just a personal note...

This blog has not been forgotten, I do apologize for the lack of updates but due to a nasty sinus infection, a trip to the emergency room and a trio of meds I am recuperating and will be back on track soon. Once again, most humble apologies. I fully intended to keep this blog updated frequently and will soon as I heal a bit more.