Tuesday, 31 October 2006

Halloween 2006

Today is Halloween. While I don't have any statistics in front of me, I suspect Halloween may only be second to Christmas as most people's favourite holiday. I know that this is probably true of kids. Growing up, Halloween was definitely the second most holiday of most children in my class at school.

In some respects the holiday seems as if it has changed very little from when I was growing up and in other ways it seems as if it has changed more. One of the ways it has changed is that I think more people decorate their houses for Halloween. When I was a child, it seemed to me that most people didn't decorate for Halloween. And when they did, the decorations were more apt to be homemade: jack o'lanterns, handmade scarecrows and ghosts, and so on. Today it seems as if there are nearly as many Halloween decorations in stores as there are decorations for the Yuletide. And there is an amazing array of them, everything from Halloween lights to pre-made scarecrows, witches, and ghosts, to plastic jack o'lanterns. One big trend of late seems to be the large, lighted inflatables of ghosts, witches, Frakenstein's monsters, and so on. This year my brother got a big inflatable jack o'lantern. It is one of the cheaper ones and he has already made it twice. I don't know if it is representative of all inflatables and if all of them are as flimsily made, but I am not sure they are built to withstand Missouri winds.

Of course, one thing that hasn't really changed is Halloween parties. Indeed, my earliest memory of Halloween is of going to a party with my parents. One thing that has changed is that many schools don't have Halloween parties any more. And even if they do, the kids aren't allowed to wear their costumes to school. I guess Halloween is no longer politically correct for many schools any longer. The strange thing is that it seems to me that more businesses, community clubs, and other private concerns are observing the holiday. I don't know if they are doing it this year, but Columbia Mall usually has its own Halloween bash.

Speaking of Halloween events, haunted houses were popular when I was young and they are still popular. The biggest haunted house around here is FearFest in Columbia. I don't know how long it has been in existence, but it has been many, many years. A lot of people around here make the trip to Columbia just to see FearFest at least once around Halloween.

One thing that has changed since I was a child is that I think trick or treating is not nearly as big as it once was. I remember when I first moved into town we would have perhaps a hundred or more trick or treaters through the night. They would start about 5:30 PM and it would be nonstop until around 8:00 PM. Most Halloweens we would run out of candy. All of this changed around 2000, when the numbers started to inexplicably drop. Now I doubt we have even ten trick or treaters on Halloween, even though more children live in the neighbourhood!

Popular costumes haven't changed very much from when I was a kid. When I was a child it seems to me that the most popular costumes among us kids were the traditional monsters (vampires, witches, Frankenstein monsters) and superheroes. This doesn't seem to have changed much today. According to the National Retail Federation, the most popular costumes among kids in 2005 were princesses, witches, Spider-Man, and monsters. Among adults they were witches, vampires, celebrities, and monsters. Some things never change.

Anyhow, it seems to me that Halloween is bigger than ever. In many respects it has changed a great deal from when I was a child and in many respects it seems to have changed a great deal. One thing I have always thought is that, given the popularity of Halloween, it should be a national holiday. Let's face it, a lot more people celebrate Halloween in the United States than either Labour Day or Columbus Day. And it would make it easier on parents. Since they would have the day off, they would not have to rush home from work and then get the kids ready for a night of trick or treating. Unfortunately, I doubt it will become a national holiday any time soon. Of course, that won't stop more people from celebrating it than most national holidays....

Monday, 30 October 2006

The Warren Horror Comic Magazines

With Halloween tomorrow I thought I would once more write about a suitable subject. Those of you my age and slightly older or younger may remember the large magazines (at least large compared to comic books) published by Warren Publishing and featuring black and white comic stories, generally horror although they also published sci-fi and, even, briefly war stories as well. For nearly twenty years Warren's magazines were among the most successful in the comics field.

Warren Publishing was founded by James Warren in the late Fifties. His first magazine was a girlie magazine, a Playboy knockoff called After Hours. Sadly for Warren, the city of Philadelphia was cracking down on pornography at the time. And even though the raciest thing After Hours ever ran was a topless photo of Bettie Page, the magazine was targeted. The judge threw the case out of court, but it was enough to kill After Hours after only four issues. Fortunately, Warren's next magazine would be a smash hit. Warren teamed up with legendary sci-fi and horror fan Forrest Ackerman to create Famous Monsters of Filmland. The magazine was a success with pre-teen males and influenced such diverse artists as Steven Spielberg and Alice Cooper.

With the success of Famous Monsters, Warren published other sorts of magazines: Help! (the adult equivalent of Mad), Screen Thrills Illustrated, and Favorite Westerns of Filmland. None of them were as successful as Famous Monsters. It was in 1964 that Warren decided to revive horror comics of the type EC once published. To avoid the overly restrictive Comics Code of the time (which even forbade the use of the word "horror"), Warren decided his horror magazine would be the size of most magazines and would feature black and white art. Because of its size, it would not be considered a comic book and would not be subject to the Comics Code. The first issue of Creepy appeared on newstands in January 1965.

Creepy was a horror anthology of the sort once published by EC Comics. It even had its own host, Uncle Creepy. It featured art by such big names as Frank Frazetta, Neal Adams, Jack Davis, and many others. The magazine was advertised in Famous Monsters before its debut and proved to be a hit with the same audience. In fact, it was so successful that Warren launched another black and white comics magazine. Blazing Combat published the sort of war stories that EC once did. Sadly, it only lasted five issues.

Undaunted, Warren would launch another black and white horror comic. Eerie was the companion of Creepy, featuring its own host and similar stories. Warren almost lost the right to call his new magazine Eerie. In the Forties Avon had briefly published a comic book called Eerie and had the intention of reviving it in the Sixties. To secure rights to the name, Warren and Forrest Ackerman had to rush together a digest sized version of the magazine and publish 200 copies, getting it out to newsstands in New York City just in time. Like Creepy, Eerie would prove to be a hit. Unlike Creepy, it would feature continuing characters from time to time. Such characters as The Rook (who later got his own magazine), Dax the Warrior, The Hunter, and The Mummy all appeared in Eerie.

Sadly, after a few years of success, Warren Publishing fell on hard times. From 1967 to 1969, both Creepy and Eerie largely consisted of reprints. It would take a brand new character to save the company. In 1969 Warren Publishing introduced Vampirella. Vampirella was an alien from the planet Drakulon whose inhabitants had taken to drinking blood. Initially, Vampirella was simply a host in her magazine, introducing stories just as Creepy and Eerie did. It was not long, however, before Vampirella would appear in stories of her own. Vampirella was perhaps the biggest hit Warren ever had. And the magazine effectively revived the entire line. Creepy and Eerie started publishing all new material on a regular basis again.

With the success of Warren's magazines, they naturally inspired imitators. Inferior magazines with titles such as Psycho, Weird, and Horror Tales would soon fill the shelves. None of them had the success that Warren did. Warren's success would also provide an impetus for DC and Marvel to revive their own horror lines. Indeed, the Comics Code would be revised so that vampires and werewolves were once more permitted in comic books. Marvel would follow Warren's lead in publishing its own black and white magazines. What set Marvel apart from Warren was a greater array of genres published. While they had their share of horror magazines (Vampire Tales), they also published such titles as Planet of the Apes, Deadly Hands of Kung Fu, and, perhaps the most successful black and white comics magazine of them all, Savage Sword of Conan.

Sadly, Warren Publishing would not last. In the late Seventies James Warren developed health problems. Worse yet, due to bad investments, his finances were pretty much in ruin. Warren was in the office less and less, and as a result the company suffered. It was in 1983 that Warren Communications filed for bankruptcy. Many of its assets would be picked up by Harris Publishing, who would revive Vampirella. This would later result in a lawsuit by Warren against Harris Publishing.

Warren Publishing lasted 19 years in publishing black and white horror comics titles. Their magazines were highly successful and would be a lasting influence on many. They created a whole niche of black and white comics magazines that existed for a time and even spurred DC and Marvel to re-enter the field of horror. It can be argued that they paved the way for other adult comics magazines, such as Heavy Metal. Although no longer around as a publishing entity, they left such an impact that they won't soon be forgotten.

Sunday, 29 October 2006

The Crazies (1973)

With Halloween just around the corner, I thought I should again write about a subject suitable to the holiday. In this case it is the George Romero film The Crazies. Released in 1973, The Crazies did not do particularly well at the box office. Re-released under the new title Code Name: Trixie, it did no better. For that reason it has long been overshadowed by Romero's Dead movies, despite the fact that it is a very good film in and of itself.

The Crazies centres on the small town of Evans City, Pennsylvania, near which a plane carrying a bacteriological weapon just happened to crash. Unfortunately for the inhabitants of Evans City, this particular bacteriological weapon (code named Trixie) affects people in one of two ways: they either die or they become irrevocably insane. Wanting to contain the spread of the bacteria as well as keep its existence secret, the government sends the military to Evans City and places the town under martial law. With that act what was already a tense situation is made even worse. The movie focuses on two separate groups of people during this crisis. One is a group of civilians struggling to survive. The other are the military and civil leaders trying to contain the spread of Trixie, not to mention keep a lid on the entire incident.

The strength of The Crazies rests in the screenplay written by George Romero and based on a story by Paul McCullough. Made during the Vietnam War and not long after the Watergate scandal had become news, The Crazies reflects the time in which it was made. The government is portrayed as caring more about the containment of Trixie and keeping it a secret than they are the inhabitants of Evans City. The military is portrayed as woefully ill equipped to deal with the situation. The average soldier has no idea what he is even doing in a small Pennsylvania town. The populace of Evans City are shown as being very suspicious of the military presence and eager to know what is really going on. Much like Romero's earlier and more success film, Night of the Living Dead, analogies to the Vietnam War can easily be made where The Crazies are concerned.

Like nearly all of Romero's early work, The Crazies is made on a shoestring budget. In many respects, however, this works to the film's advantage. Without the spit and polish of a Hollywood movie, The Crazies looks and feels more realistic than most studio films. As a result, the film is all the more disturbing. And though I would say it is more a political action movie than a horror film, it does have some very effective moments of horror. Indeed, a scene in which soldiers confront an old woman who is knitting is particularly disturbing to me.

The cast is entirely made of unknowns, although Romero fans (including me) will recognise a few faces from his other films here and there. For the most part they give admirable performances and in many respects they are probably more believable than big name stars would be.

As I mentioned previously, The Crazies has largely been overshadowed by Romero's Dead films. It bombed in its initial release and would not really develop a following until its release on home video. This is sad, as it is actually one of Romero's better works (along with Knightriders and Martin). It is definitely a film that deserves to be seen.