Monday, November 12, 2018

Dream Theater: Leader of the Band


Somehow, I'd become the lead singer for a band.

Only I didn't know any of their songs. We'd never practiced together. The truth was, I hadn't even heard of the band. And yet, here I was, their front man, and we were due to appear at a large music festival in a short while. 

What came as an even bigger surprise was how calm and supportive everybody was about the situation. None of the other band members or the people backstage were freaking out, even though freaking out would have been a perfectly understandable reaction.

Maybe that's why I wasn't freaking out, either. Sure, the circumstances were less than ideal, and there was a chance things might get awkward out there underneath the lights. But everyone seemed to share the opinion that once we got started, I'd catch on pretty quickly. As the band played, the lyrics and music would come to me. The audience would just to have understand. 

The lead guitarist said, "In a way, it's really their problem."

"Just make sure I have a set list," I said, as if a list of the songs we were going to play would help me in any way.

But everyone just looked around and shrugged. Apparently nobody had one of those, either.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Dream Theater: Where Did I Put My Backpack?


It was a Friday night after work, and I'd just lost my backpack at Macy's on State Street. Strangely enough, I lost it in the part of the store that sold bags and backpacks.

I'd already left the store when I realized what I'd done. I went back to Macy's lost and found desk. They didn't have my backpack, but they did give me a pink envelope from the president of the company, containing two necklaces. Great. Now I'd have to get that back to its rightful  owner in addition to tracking down my bag.

I returned to Macy's luggage department and dug around through the merchandise looking for my own backpack. And there it was, sitting on the floor. I was so relieved. I grabbed it and left the store, totally forgetting about the necklaces in the envelope.

It was Friday night. I had my backpack again. The whole weekend was still ahead of me. I went to the nearest El station, and once I got there I set down my backpack just for a second. And then it was gone. Again.

I looked everywhere for it, I asked everyone if they'd seen it. I approached a group of people, and Justin Bieber was hanging out with them. When I told them what had happened he acted like it was funny.

Then I asked Taylor Swift, who also happened to be nearby. She was sweet and understanding and offered to help me look for it. Though she did remind me, I wasn't the first person in the world to ever lose their purse.

Wednesday, October 31, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 31


McKamey Manor; 2007-present; directed by Russ McKamey
Haunters: The Art of the Scare: 2017: written and directed by Jon Schnitzer

In operation since 2007--originally in San Diego, now relocated to Nashville, Tennessee and Huntsville, Alabama--McKamey Manor has become known for its extreme "emotional torture" experience.

How to describe what goes on inside those quotation marks? Visitors to McKamey Manor are led through a fairly typical-looking haunted house environment, but that's where the resemblance to anything put on by your local Jaycees chapter ends. 

They're accompanied by a gang of costumed characters who look like they might be members of the Insane Clown Posse after an especially rough night. The characters tie down guests, threaten them with power tools, cover them in disgusting substances (and often, stick them in their mouths), douse them with cold water, place live bugs and spiders on their faces, and in general bully and manhandle them into submission when they don't do as they're told.

People scream and cry, tremble and vomit, plead for mercy and their lives. Occasionally they zone out and take on the thousand-yard stare of torture victims. Through it all you don't get the impression they're acting, but that the emotional distress and breakdowns we're seeing are real.

And Russ McKamey is right there during the whole thing, cajoling and taunting his victims to accept just a little more abuse, like the world's meanest BDSM dominant. He also records the experience, most of it in extreme close-up.

There's more than a bit of the drill sergeant in Russ's demeanor. Also, the frustrated auteur. The recordings he makes are later edited into surprisingly sophisticated videos--each essentially a commercial for McKamey Manor--that occasionally last four hours or more.

Who exactly signs up for this sort of thing? A lot of people, apparently. McKamey Manor boasts a waiting list with 24,000 names. And for the privilege of being accepted, guests pay only in dog for Russ's dogs.

In interviews peppered throughout the videos, the guests make it clear they're fine and their experience in the Manor was completely consensual, a way to push their limits and see what they can take that no one, ever, should even consider trying themselves. Which, to a certain type of person, only makes it that much more appealing.

I was introduced to McKamey Manor in a documentary on Netflix titled Haunters: The Art of the Scare. (From which the trailer, above, is taken.) It was also recently featured on an episode of Dark Tourist, on Netflix as well. And Russ's videos--hundreds of them--are available on YouTube and its web site. (I would have posted one of those, but for some reason McKamey Manor doesn't allow its videos to be played on outside sites.)

If you're one of those people for whom torture porn is just a little too tame, a visit to McKamey Manor might be in order.

McKamey Manor videos are available on YouTube and at McKameyManor.com; Haunters: The Art of the Scare and Dark Tourist are available on Netflix

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If you've been reading these recommendations over the past month, thanks so much for stopping by. I hope you found something that made your October a little more enjoyable. Have a scary and happy Halloween!

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Dream Theater: Donald Trump Sings the Hits!

Photo from NYMag.com
I was sitting at home, watching Saturday Night Live. I shouldn't have been doing that, because Donald Trump was hosting again. What made it even worse is that he was also the show's musical guest.

Donald Trump's musical career was something I wasn't aware of, but it shouldn't have surprised me. He was into so many dubious schemes. Suits and ties, vodka, steaks, water, education, politics, charitable foundations. Of course music was one more thing he believed himself capable of. And he no doubt thought he was terrific at it. One of the top vocalists. Of this or any other musical era. Everyone was talking about it.

And then it was time for him to perform. One of the cast members introduced him after the commercial break, just like they do. "Ladies and gentlemen, Donald Trump."

The lights went up and there he was, standing at the mic, dressed in one of Elvis Presley's sequined white jumpsuits. The music started and he began to sing, a surprisingly passable version of Elvis's 1969 hit "Suspicious Minds."


We're caught in a trap
I can't walk out
Because I love you too much, baby
Why can't you see
What you're doing to me
When you don't believe a word I say?
We can't go on together
With suspicious minds (suspicious minds)
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds
So, if an old friend I know
Stops by to say hello
Would I still see suspicion in your eyes?
Here we go again
Asking where I've been
You can't see the tears are real
I'm crying (Yes, I'm crying)
We can't go on together
With suspicious minds (suspicious minds)
And we can't build our dreams
On suspicious minds
Oh, let our love survive
Or dry the tears from your eyes
Let's don't let a good thing die
When, honey, you know
I've never lied to you
Mmm, yeah, yeah
We're caught in a trap
I can't walk out...

31 Days of Dread--Day 30


The Mist; 2007; written by Frank Darabont, based on the novel by Stephen King; directed by Frank Darabont

There are gorier movies out there than The Mist. More violent ones, too. Maybe even more terrifying. But there aren't too many with its powerful ending, one which manages to punch well below the belt and grab you by the throat at the same time.

Following a severe storm, David Drayton (played by Thomas Jane) and his young son find themselves trapped in a supermarket with several other townspeople after a strange mist envelops the store. It's soon revealed there's "something in the mist"--untold numbers of somethings, actually, with teeth and claws and wings and tentacles.

The only thing more dangerous than the Lovecraftian creatures outside the store are the increasingly desperate townspeople under siege inside it, foremost among them a local religious zealot with messianic ambitions (Marcia Gay Harden). With the fight for survival split more or less evenly between two fronts, tensions soon rise and everyone is forced to take a side. Eventually the choice to stay and die or leave and take your chances can't be put off any longer.

Shot in a roving, hand-held style, the film has at times a documentary feel that makes the conflicts and shocks that much more immediate. Darabont has said he was inspired by horror B-movies of the 1950s and '60s, and his black-and-white version (available on several versions of the DVD) is worth seeking out, especially if you've already seen it in color.

Now about that ending. Readers of this blog--and the film reviews that occasionally appear in it--may recall I have an issue with Hollywood's insistence on a happy ending. That's something The Mist doesn't suffer from. I won't say more, in case you haven't seen it. And if you have, you already know it elevates The Mist from merely good to one of the all-time greats.

The Mist is available for streaming rental.

Monday, October 29, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 29


Squirm; 1976; written and directed by Jeff Lieberman

There are so many ways this low-budget horror flick justifies its title. 

First there's the run-down location and settings of Port Wentworth, Georgia, a place so backwoods it makes Petticoat Junction look cosmopolitan. Then there are the slightly awkward performances and southern accents (real or put-on) that are thicker than blackstrap molasses. And let's not forget the sight of all those worms, real worms most of the time, with writhing legs, shot in excruciating close-ups and threatening to overrun it all.

One of several "natural horror" films released by American Internal Pictures during the 1970s (along with Frogs, Food of the Gods and Empire of the Ants) Squirm takes place after an especially strong thunderstorm has downed several power lines, sending hordes of flesh-eating worms to the surface. 

It takes a guy from the big city, played by Don Scardino, to realize something's wrong. From the start, his round geek glasses--along with that famous order of an egg cream--mark him as an outsider, and he's subjected to small-town hostility from almost everyone he meets. You have to wonder which is the bigger threat: the worms or a gang of locals organizing a posse to kick his ass all the way back to New York City. 

Compared to contemporary pacing, Squirm takes some time getting up to speed. But once it reaches take-off velocity it's pretty much relentless, presenting one grisly scene after another. Worms pop up everywhere, spilling out of windows and air vents, and even filling up entire rooms. Past the halfway point, once they've already made a couple appearances, you half expect them to show up just about everywhere, which only adds to the skin-crawling effect.

All the film's low-budget markers--grainy cinematography, a cheesy synth score and an even cheesier "love theme" that plays over the end credits, the clunky script with its casual view of sexism and physical abuse--make the end result seem uncomfortably real, more raw than something we should be watching. Combine that with some early but effective makeup work from Rick Baker (who would go on to win an Oscar for An American Werewolf in London just five years later) and you've got something that should trigger anyone's vermiphobia. 

Squirm is available on Amazon Prime and streaming rental.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

31 Days of Dread--Day 28


Jacob's Ladder; 1990; written by Bruce Joel Rubin; directed by Adrian Lyne

Jacob Singer is literally having a hell of a time.

Played by a young and vulnerable-looking Tim Robbins, Singer is a wounded Vietnam vet and postal worker living in New York City. If those two things weren't bad enough, he finds himself lost in a creepy subway, attending a party where a demon seems to ravage his girlfriend, suffering from a strange fever that brings on terrifying hallucinations, haunted by memories of another life and family, part of a group of men who were possibly given an experimental drug without their knowledge, and taken to a hospital filled with monstrosities and operated on without anesthesia. In between, reality seems to be cracking open all around him, spilling out its rotten insides.

What truly makes this slippery tale worth watching almost thirty years after its release is the vision of director Adrian Lyne. Made before anyone had ever heard of CGI, the special effects of Jacob's Ladder were all practical and created "in camera," with no post-production work to sweeten them. As a result, they pack a visceral punch, delivered from a fist with real blood on its knuckles and dirt beneath its nails.

Lyne cited the artwork of Francis Bacon as an inspiration for Jacob's Ladder, and the film went on to influence the Silent Hill video game and film franchises. It shouldn't come as a surprise that a remake is in the works for 2019; it will be interesting to see what the filmmakers do in an effort to surpass the original's power.

Jacob's Ladder is available on Amazon Prime (hurry!--only until November 1) and streaming rental.