Jahnavi Caldwell-Green. We've never met. Until this morning, I'll admit I didn't even know you existed. The distance between us is pretty staggering, geographically and/or otherwise. You're a senior at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. I'm some guy in my mid-thirties over here in Brooklyn.
But now we are forever linked, bound by the boards, thanks to your senior thesis project.
Jahnavi, you see, has decided to direct herself in a solo-show I wrote a few years back called COMMENCEMENT for the Lewis & Clark College Theatre Department's 2012 Senior Thesis Projects Festival.
I've got to hand it to you, Jahnavi… As far as senior thesis's go, you really picked a doozy. It's one thing to perform all three characters within the piece, navigating your way through sixty overwrought minutes— but to direct yourself as well? Sweet Jesus up above, girl! I would've picked a David Ives play instead. Something, anything, other than this melodramatic hand-wringer that I wrote. A better playwright + a better script = Diploma.
Knowing that this is the culminating effort of your undergraduate career, I can't help but feel partially responsible for the outcome of your project. I'm a little anxious, I've got to say. Maybe even a bit worried. Were you graded on this? How did you do? Did you pass? Just please tell me you passed…
And what about the audience? Did they stay with you? Did you survive your two performances? How are you? Is everything okay?
This is what Jahnavi has to say about COMMENCEMENT: “Three women with deeply complex histories speak their truth, each in a state of stuckness, and struggle to act, to move forward, to commence.”
Jahnavi—I just hope, I pray, that you make it to your own pending commencement, graduating with full honors at the end of the semester.
Here's more info on the festival: http://bit.ly/I0qP12
Here are lighting designer Kaye Blankenship's pics: http://bit.ly/I0qVWq
April 21, 2012Related: Commencement
Look at them. All those blurry Q/A-faces. Staring back at me.
Our film HENLEY screened this last weekend at the 19th Annual James River Film Festival, playing before Rick Alverson's bad-touch THE COMEDY. Screening a short before a feature is like being the opening band to a huge headliner. Not many people come out to see the warmup. When the night's over, most folks will have forgotten who the opening act even was. That self-conscious voice at the back of my head had me believing everybody had promptly consigned HENLEY to backburner oblivion, so it was a pleasant surprise to stumble upon the blog called I Could Go On And On who had this to say:
"Showing first was a short, "Henley," shot in Cumberland, Virginia about a kid who lives at a motel and collects road kill.The actor, Hale Lytle, was chosen from a host of SPARC kids, most of whom possessed the kind of "jazz hands" acting that they director was trying to avoid. For the record, Lytle couldn't be at the screening tonight because he's in NYC shooting a feature film. They grow up so fast. Actually, he causes road kill, which was the disturbing part of former local Clay McLeod Chapman's script from a chapter in his novel. But since I'd seen Chapman's work performed before, I knew to expect a twist and he'd delivered."
Thanks, Karen. If you'd like to read the rest of her post "An Ode to Film Devotion," click here: http://bit.ly/IXlOC4
April 17, 2012Related: Henley (short)
A quick trip down to ol' Virginia this weekend lead me to the Richmond Public Library, where an essay of mine is on exhibit for a show titled "Why Children's Books: Inspiring Generations." A handful of authors were asked to write a love letter to a children's book that continues to resonate with them today. Here's what I wrote:
SCARY STORIES TO TELL IN THE DARK
Written by Alvin Schwartz. Drawings by Stephen Gammell.
Essay by Clay McLeod Chapman
There’s a campfire burning through my book. The pages crackle and hiss with each flame I flip. The lights have all been turned off, sending my bedroom into darkness, save for the words casting their ghastly shadows over my imagination.
I want to share a story with you…
A scary story.
A pair of feet dangles down from inside an old woman’s chimney. Or how about a hook-handed madman who hitches a ride home with an unsuspecting couple? Or the one about the Wendigo (my absolute fave), an evil spirit who whisks you off the ground so fast, your feet burn down to nothing but stumps? Or, since we’re on a roll here, what about an ode to worms working their way through your intestines well after you’re dead and buried?
You can find them all—and many, many more—waiting for you inside Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark.
Alvin Schwartz was the first writer I ever encountered as a kid who seemed capable of distilling the oral tradition onto the page, taking those rustic bits of folklore that I had heard spun around the campfire and somehow encapsulating their ethereal magic into print. These were words I wanted to read out loud—to myself, to friends, to anyone brave enough to listen. Pair up these eerie tales alongside Stephen Gammell’s pulpy pen and still dribbling ink sketches and you have every explanation necessary over why I lost so much sleep as a youngster. These illustrations seem to bleed right off the page. Touching them with my finger has always been a dicey prospect, even today, given the fact that they look wet. Very wet. Open this book up carefully, slowly, with both hands, lest the soft matter of The Dead Man’s Brains come spilling directly into your lap.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you…
Books can be interactive. Even if the words remain static, frozen forever in their sentences, there is still a back-and-forth between what’s on the page and what brims within the reader’s imagination.
The campfire is always there, nestled within their pages—ready to be lit. It’s merely a matter of reading.
If you’re not too scared, that is.
Sure hope you brought some marshmallows…
April 15, 2012
A few weeks back, my wife and I went to see the Brooklyn Philharmonic. The concert was a blast, but what has really lingered in my mind more than the music itself was watching one of the violinists struggle through a choking fit onstage.
I witnessed a slight tickle in the throat mount into a respiratory mini-melodrama of operatic proportions, all to the tune of “Am I Born” by David Little.
With our balcony seats, we were practically hovering above the performers. This bird’s eye view had my sightlines centered directly on the string section for most of the evening. It’s safe to say I’ve never been so close to a symphony in the midst of a recital before. Beholding the mechanical precision of the orchestra from above was like popping the hood on a car and letting its engine rev, observing all the various cogs and pistons as they operate in harmony with one another.
Which was why this gagging violinist caught my attention pretty quickly.
Somewhere within the second act, her neck started to strain.
I could tell she was trying to suppress a cough. Swallow it back down. There was a lull in the strings, which gave her a chance to hold her hand over her mouth—but the cough wouldn’t dissipate. If anything, from my vantage point, it looked like it was intensifying. This poor performer continued to wrestle with her own throat from the string section, the tendons in her neck stretched to the point of snapping.
But she refused to cough. She refused to disrupt the music.
She kept pushing, pushing it down into her chest—while that assiduous hack, mounting in its own unremitting intensity, continued to claw its way back up.
When it was time to pick up her violin and play, it was easy to see that she was in a considerable amount of pain. Her face was flushed, eyes watering, almost as if she were responding to the beauty of the music itself—but no, that was actually a volcanic reflex against her glottis, a swell of trapped air yearning to burst free from her lungs.
But she wouldn’t let the cough win. Even at the expense of her own physical well-being, her own comfort, she would not upset the cantata.
I felt helpless, absolutely helpless, stuck where I was, watching this all transpire. But what was even more prostrating was, once the show was over and I asked my wife about the choking violinist, she said she hadn’t noticed…
Had anyone else seen the torment this woman had gone through?
Had I been the only one?
Whoever you are, ma’am, I just wanted to let you know I saw everything. I saw your phlegmatic battle—and I saw you win.
Your struggle wasn’t in vain.
April 11, 2012
Confession: I'm a big fan of "Tim & Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!"
So. When I found out that our short film HENLEY would be screening directly before Rick Alverson's new feature THE COMEDY, starring none other than Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim, at the 19th Annual James River Film Festival, I got a little, you know… pants-poopy about it.
It's not like either of them will be at the screening. Probably not. Of course not. Right? But this is as close to Tim and Eric as I'm ever going to get. I'm feeling a little bit like "The Six Degrees of Icarus Bacon" flying too close to the sun here. Or something like that. You know what I'm talking about.
Here's a synopsis for the double-header of HENLEY and THE COMEDY at the James River Film Festival website: http://bit.ly/He1n11
Rick Alverson is from Richmond. I'm from Richmond. His movie played at Sundance this year. My movie played at Sundance this year. Now both of our films are screening back-to-back in Richmond together.
See how that all came full circle? I'm just about one degree away from touching Tim & Eric… A boy can dream, can't he?
April 3, 2012Related: Henley (short)
Did a children's book change your life? Do you have special childhood memories attached to a certain book?
Check out this kick-ass event that's happening in my hometown. There is a wonderful exhibit coming to the Richmond Public Library in April that explores the role of children's books in our lives. "Why Children's Books: Inspiring Generations" will feature essays from many notable Richmonders including Shaka Smart, Michael Rao, Alex Nyerges, Jack Spiro, Mayor Dwight Jones, Tim Kaine, Anne Holton, Jason Mraz, and many more.
Me, too. The folks at the Richmond Public Library were kind enough to invite me to write a piece for the exhibit. Guess what book I chose from my childhood? Alvin Schwartz's one and only "Scary Stories To Tell In The Dark." The Wendigo! The Hearse Song! The Hook! They're all right here in one book.
To this day, Stephen Gammell's illustrations still linger at the back of my brain. Encountering his hellish watercolors as a kid first cracking open that book… Now that's the stuff nightmares are made of. I recently saw that SSTTITD was reissued with completely different illustrations by someone other than Gammell, which to me is simply sacrilege. Absolute sacrilege. Don't whitewash my childhood away! If you find yourself in a position to pick up a copy of the book, please, for the love of all that's good and (un)holy, find the original edition with Gammell's masterfully murky ink drawings. Please.
From the Library release: "These essays are personal stories from all over Richmond on children's books that make a real difference. Each story illustrates the power of children's books and their ability to inspire us."
...Or ruin our childhood sleeping habits. Take your pick.
To read more about the event, go to the Richmond Public Library blog: http://bit.ly/GZyw6H
For details and directions, go to the Richmond Public Library website: http://bit.ly/GZyWtK
March 29, 2012
Well, if you weren't at last night's "Fear-Mongers: FIreside Chats about Horror Films," you really missed out. We kicked off our third season with probably one of our best events yet. Beyond my nerves tying up my tongue at the beginning of the evening, it was an absolute blast.
Slowly but surely, I'm finally getting the hang of this whole interview give-and-take. Honestly, it all boils down to the guest. Get the right personality onstage and they do most of the heavy lifting. Lucky for me, I had some real pros last night. Big thanks to Jim Mickle & Nick Damici (Stake Land), Trav S.D. (No Applause, Just Throw Money), Jack Ketchum (The Woman) and Lloyd Kaufman (Troma Pictures) for making my job a hell of a lot easier…
It's just fun to hear these folks tell their stories. I try and do my homework beforehand, preparing dozens of notecards worth of questions… But the second the show starts and it's time to sit down with my guests, all the prep-work melts and it's just me listening to good people share their experiences. Class is always in session and I'm the nerd sitting in the front row.
Time to start the hunt for our next lineup… Any suggestions? See you in June!
March 28, 2012Related: Fear-Mongers
Broadway World announced that Hostage Song, featuring a book by me and music/lyrics by good friend Kyle Jarrow, will be making its way to Chicago this summer. The folks at Signal Ensemble Theatre are just crazy enough to bring our indie-rock musical to the Windy City.
Read the story here: http://bit.ly/GDDoZY
This will mark the second regional production of Hostage Song since its premiere in NYC in 2008. It's a tough show to wrap your head around, given the fact that on paper it sounds like an awful, awful idea… A romantic comedy that takes place during a hostage crisis? With our leading pair of young lovers blindfolded, hands bound, throughout the entire show? With singing? Really?
And yet… It works. At least that's what Kyle and I think.
Not to mention everybody who helped create the piece in the first place. This show is pretty near-and-dear to a lot of people who were involved in the original production, from our director Oliver Butler to our cast. Now that Hostage Song is slowly making its way out into the world, with a presentation at NAMT to a production in Colorado last year and now Chicago, it's heartening to think more and more people might feel the same way we do.
Chicago: You be the judge. See you in May!
March 21, 2012Related: Hostage Song
Not to toot the horn too-too much here, but when the fine folks over at Fangoria Magazine say you're the best live talk show on horror in all of NYC, you tend to get excited. If Fangoria is correct in mentioning we may in fact be the only talk show in NYC, we'll still take it as a compliment.
Shake what your mother gave you, right?
Here's a great lil' write-up from Fangoria on our upcoming Fear-Mongers: Fireside Chats about Horror Films: http://bit.ly/FVYLnC
Mark your calendars! 3/27 at Dixon Place! 8 PM sharp!
March 19, 2012Related: Fear-Mongers
I'm sitting in rehearsals as we speak. Hornsby is pounding away on the keys. Our cast is belting through the tune "Continents Drift," a pretty hefty power ballad that opens up the second act of our new(ish) musical STRANGER.
Lo and behold, my trusty Google-alert informs me that The New York Times has sniffed us out. You can't hide the truth from the Times for long. We tried to bury this, going as far as to even change the show's name—but the people demand to know.
"Bruce Hornsby Musical Gets A Reading—And A New Name," The New York Times: http://nyti.ms/zPB3ZW
All the news that's fit to print, hey? Damn you, NY Times. Damn you…
March 12, 2012Related: SCKBSTD
The lovely folks over at The Lake Placid Film Forum have given director Craig Macneill and myself a chance to guest blog about our behind-the-scenes experiences on our film HENLEY. If you've got a few minutes to kill, you can read our piece "The Kid Who Could Talk to Deer" here:
Craig and I had our previous film LATE BLOOMER screen at the Lake Placid Film Festival back in 2004, taking the audience award for Best Short. We're psyched to be coming back with HENLEY this year. Lotta deer up there in those Andirondack Mountains…
March 12, 2012Related: Henley (short)
Our short film LATE BLOOMER, directed by Craig Macneill, written and narrated by yours truly, took top honors out in Los Angeles at the 2012 box[ur]shorts film festival.
Not only did we win Best Short Film, but we walked away with the Audience Award as well.
You can read about the nominees and winners here: http://bit.ly/wwdJOP
Box[ur]shorts are apparently these crazy jukeboxes planted in bars all around the world. Rather than plopping in some money for a song, you can select a short film to watch. LATE BLOOMER has been one of fifty shorts you can view while inebriated. Of those fifty, ten were selected to compete. There was a juried prize and an audience prize. Somehow, miracle upon all miracles, LATE BLOOMER won both. Not bad, my friends. Not bad at all.
The crazy thing is, Craig made LATE BLOOMER back in 2004. We hit the festival circuit that year. The film has screened at some pretty amazing spots, winning a few awards here and there, finally making it all the way to the 2005 Sundance Film Festival. We figured that would be the end of it. It's a pretty old movie now. But the thing just won't die. It just won't die! Craig uploaded LATE BLOOMER to Youtube last year and we're close to a half a million hits. Those aren't Rebecca Black "Fridays" kind of numbers, I know… But for a short film that's nearly a decade old, it's definitely a shot in the arm for us.
Thanks to everybody at box[ur]shorts for putting our ode to HP Lovecraft in dive bars everywhere. The next time you're at your local watering hole and you're about to slip a dollar in the ol' jukebox, if you happen to see one of these bizarro film-contraptions… consider giving Don McLean's "American Pie" a rest and giving your fellow patrons the gift of film instead.
March 11, 2012Related: Late Bloomer (short)
Playbill wrote an article today about an industry-only developmental reading for this musical I've been writing the book for (re)titled STRANGER. We are about to embark upon a ten-day long rehearsal-odyssey, presenting a double-header event on March 20th at the brand spanking new Signature Theatre.
To read the Playbill story, click on over here: http://bit.ly/AtHp3X
Then Broadway.com wrote about it too over here: http://bit.ly/A3noL5
The production has an intimidating roster of talented people involved. Rack up those Grammys, Hornsby. Count all those Tony awards. John Rando. Kim Grigsby. Scott Wise. Darrel Maloney. Robert Weirzel. Jennifer Caprio. And…
But that's not why I'm writing you now. There's something far more pressing:
You won't find a bigger fan of HALLOWEEN II than me. I dare you to try. You will fail. Trust me. So. Consider the utter elation I felt when I learned that Lance Guest, star of the 1981 sequel to John Carpenter's classic, would be playing the title role for our lil' Hornsbical. You Broadway babies may know Guest from his turn as Johnny Cash in Million Dollar Quartet—but to me, he'll always be "Jimmy," the clumsy paramedic who takes a pratfall through a puddle of some dead nurse's blood all for the love of Jamie Lee Curtis.
And let's not forget Guest's star-turn in THE LAST STARFIGHTER, either. Or JAWS IV: THE REVENGE, opposite Michael Caine. I am a fan fan fan.
Rehearsals start on Monday. The question(s) I keep asking myself is… How long can I last before breaking down and asking Guest about life on the set of HALLOWEEN II? Or working with Catherine Mary Stuart? Or Nick Castle? Or what was up with Mario van Peebles bizarro Jamaican accent in JAWS?
And then how long do you give me before I'm fired from the show for bringing it up?
March 7, 2012Related: SCKBSTD
At last. Fear-Mongers: Fireside Chats about Horror Films returns for its third season!
Dixon Place has asked us back, which is great. We've got three shows set up for 2012, starting with March 27th. And today, drum roll please, I'm happy to announce our lineup of uh-mazing guests…
(President of Troma Entertainment and Creator of "The Toxic Avenger")
(Author of "The Woman," "Offspring," and "The Girl Next Door")
Jim Mickle & Nick Damici
(Co-writers, director and star of "Stake Land")
(Author of "No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous")
Tuesday, March 27th at 8 PM
at Dixon Place
161A Chrystie Street (btn Rivington and Delancey)
For reservations, call: (212) 219-0736
For more info about Fear Mongers, visit us at: http://www.dixonplace.org/html/fearmongers.html
This show has been a labor of love ever since we started it way back in 2010. Leslie Strongwater, who used to work at Dixon Place, had asked if I'd be interested in organizing a reading series for them… Which, to be honest, I wasn't super-keen on. I'd tried to put together a monthly reading series before with pretty awful results. The prospect of hunting down new writers every month, not to mention an audience, just felt like a daunting task… But Leslie persisted, god bless her. If it wasn't for her, none of this would've happened. It's not every day you get offered a slot at such an awesome spot as Dixon Place, so… I tried to think of something else to put together. Something fun. And silly. And possibly even a little bit smart. And respected. But fun.
It's no secret that I'm a big-time horror fan, so when the epiphany hit to develop an event around people geeking out about monster movies, it all clicked. Pieces started falling into place. And now… Here we are. 2012. Our third season. An awesome roster of guests that continues to expand. Not to mention an interesting mix of audience members who continue to come back, show after show. Hopefully this thing will just keep growing and growing.
Consider yourself warned. Fear-Mongers is back… And we're hitting the ground running. Get your tickets in advance. Here we go!
March 1, 2012Related: Fear-Mongers
Last year, good pal Jim Kane asked me if I'd write a short film for him and his filmmaker friends about a bunch of guys getting stranded in the middle of Death Valley.
How can you turn an offer like that down? I banged out a script and now you have…
Jim and crew are looking to raise a little bit more of their budget, going the good ol' crowd-funding route. They put together an IndieGoGo profile for the project, which you can find here: http://bit.ly/ygZCcm
Here's what the profile page says:
"We are Los Angeles filmmakers looking to further fund our project; a short film written by Clay McLeod Chapman, story by Jim Kane. Relying on directions from a GPS device in their vehicle, four friends are stranded for days in a remote area of Death Valley. Panamint is a suspenseful short film inspired from true stories of what can happen when you get lost in a desert with over 3 million acres of wilderness and temperatures above 125 degrees."
Sounds like fun, no? I'm a huge fan of Gus van Sant's "Gerry," so this is my frat-boy homage to his slow burning masterpiece. Who wouldn't want to fund something like that? Plus, if you shell out the big bucks, apparently you win a date with the director. Classy.
So help some LA actors achieve their dreams, will ya?
February 22, 2012
New name. New script. New songs. New production.
Summer 2012: STRANGER, a new-ish American musical. Book written by Clay McLeod Chapman. Music and lyrics by Bruce Hornsby. Additional lyrics by Chip Dematteo. Directed by John Rando.
February 15, 2012Related: SCKBSTD
Our short film, HENLEY, written by me and director Craig Macneill, based on the chapter “The Henley Road Motel” from my novel MISS CORPUS, is an official selection at the 2012 SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL!
Meet 9-year-old Ted Henley — budding motel manager and roadkill entrepreneur. Ted lives with his father in their rundown motel on a desolate stretch of road. He earns his tiny allowance by cleaning up roadkill that litter the highway. But when the motel cash register suddenly runs dry, Ted turns his attention to collecting bigger game…
Grand Jury Prize for BEST SHORT FILM at the 2011 Gen Art Film Festival.
Grand Jury Prize for BEST SHORT FILM at the 2011 Carmel Film Festival.
And now… Sundance! This year’s Short Film program is comprised of 64 short films selected from a record 7,675 submissions!
Henley’s Sundance program page: http://bit.ly/unM0q3
Official Sundance announcement: http://bit.ly/uOJhqx
Hollywood Reporter article: http://bit.ly/vB580v
Richmond Mag interview w/ me: http://bit.ly/sYhA8M
This marks the second film-collaboration Craig and I will have taken to Sundance together. Our first, 2005’s LATE BLOOMER, continues to screen at festivals throughout the world. You can watch it on Youtube here: http://bit.ly/st6Jad
HENLEY will have four screenings through the fest:
Friday, January 20th, NOON
Yarrow Hotel Theatre, Park City
Friday, January 20th, 9 PM
Broadway Centre Cinema 6, Salt Lake City
Sunday, January 22th, 3:30 PM
Redstone Cinema 8, Park City
Thursday, January 26th, 4 PM
Holiday Village Cinema 4, Park City
Official HENLEY site: http://www.henleyfilm.com/
Friend HENLEY on Facebook: http://on.fb.me/w3ebhf
Shout-outs to Craig, our do-it-all DP Noah Greenberg, our uh-mazing producer Almitra Corey, our leading man Hale, and the entire cast and crew who suffered through a sweltering Virginia summer and contracted Lyme disease during the shoot. We did it!
January 1, 2012Related: Henley (short)
“Hostage Rock Musical Resonates Chillingly with Sutherlands,” Denver Post
December 6, 2011
Writer Clay McLeod Chapman, and only writer Clay McLeod Chapman, has the cojones to tell the story about “Stairway”, and have that story be about make out marathons.
December 6, 2011
Video World was tucked off into a topiary-barricaded alcove of the Stony Point Shopping Centre, a swift five-minute Schwinn sojourn from my front door.
No bigger than a boutique, this early-80's video store was infinitesimal in comparison to the cancerous sprawl of the Blockbuster Video chain that had begun to malignantly metastasize its way through America’s suburban strip malls, eventually putting all the mom-and-pop operations like Video World out of business. I was fortunate enough to push through my preadolescence before the big blue-and-yellow Blockbuster awnings started cropping up all across my hometown. Walking into Video World was like immersing myself in a Betamax Shangri-La. Every last inch of wall space, from floor-to-ceiling, was lined entirely in video cassettes. At 8 years old, I had officially found my home-away-from home. Each 4 by 7-and-a-half inch VHS cassette contained a different story, just waiting to be told – and I made it my mission to watch them all. Or as many as my allowance would allow.
Hidden at the rear of the store, buried behind comedy, family, drama (but before you reached the “private room” of adult films at the very, very back) – there remained a single row of videos off-limits to children. Little boys and girls were not allowed to rent the videos from back here at the shadowy edge of the forest.
The horror section.
A kid like me couldn’t help but feel a shift in the atmosphere upon entering the aisle, suddenly surrounded by so many R-rated movies. The carpet seemed to darken, stained somehow. Even the air had a miasma of decrepit breath to it, thicker than the air in the children's section. I knew I wasn’t supposed to be here, which only made me want to explore even more – go deeper, take just another couple steps in, see if I could make my way past the A’s, past the B’s, even the C’s, until I was utterly immersed in the aisle, enveloped in images of terror from all around.
This – this was where fear resided.
Every kind of fear you could think of, or not think of, was right here – captured on magnetic tape and sealed inside its own cardboard box – little gift-wrapped packages presented in a tableau of carnage.
Deadly Spawn. Faces of Death. Def-Con 4. Xtro. The Stepfather. The Driller Killer. The Stuff. Texas Chainsaw Massacre II. I Spit On Your Grave. The Dead Pit. Black Roses. Headless Eyes. Magic. Black Christmas. He Knows You’re Alone. Class of Nuke 'Em High. Cellar Dweller. Mother's Day. The Prowler.
So go ahead, kid – I dare you. Slip a video off the shelf.
Pick any horror film and take the cassette into your hand. Rub your finger over the cardboard cover with its softened edges. Feel how fuzzy and worn the corners are?
Now look at the cover.
Video after video displayed a frozen moment of terror – either a snapshot of a victim caught in that instant just before the axe comes crashing down upon their cranium or of some hideous monstrosity still covered in the gory remains of its last meal. Too many to list – but I can still remember them all. The corpse of a college coed sitting upright in a rocking chair, a clear plastic bag wrapped around her head. A pair of eyeballs slithering away from the very sockets of their owner. The silhouette of a man wielding a butcher knife, only inches away from stabbing his stepdaughter and her defenseless dog.
Most of these movies have long since drifted off into a sea of beta-obscurity, lost forever in a back catalogue of forgettable movies. But somehow, their cover art remains indelibly rooted within my subconscious. Their Photoshopped tentacles have wrapped themselves around the deeper recesses of my brain and refuse to let go. The image of Freddy Krueger from the front cover of Nightmare on Elm Street II. The pool of melted human remains from the front cover of The Stuff.
Even to this day I can conjure up distinct images of grotesqueries from any number of video cassette covers, like photos displayed in a gallery. Your friendly neighborhood video store is presenting its own art show of terror. A monstrosity exhibition.
I was too young to actually watch any of these movies at the time – but I didn't need to. The cover artwork was enough. The shock of the image had a searing effect on my subconscious, imprinting its visual signature on my little boy's brain in far more damaging (and therefore effective) ways. The sleeve activated my imagination by exposing it to images of visceral horror more unnerving than the movies themselves.
This was the true horror here: Not the films and the stories they told, but the preadolescent-mind taking that snippet of information from the front cover (an act of violence, a look of terror, a monster) and letting a narrative develop from there.
For the curious 8 year old who gets lost in the woods of his local video store, entering into the horror section is like being a kid in an anti-candy store. Look – but don’t rent. All a child has are the covers. For an adult in the decision-making process of what-to-rent, the images on the video sleeve are a point of entry into these movies – while for the child, they are the movie.
The images alone are their total and finite experience with the film.
There is nothing else beyond that singular isolated picture.
Viewing these movies becomes completely moot for the underage viewer. It is, within these proposed rules of engagement, totally unnecessary to watch the actual film in order to receive its intended effect. On the contrary, most of the time it’s better not to watch them. The story told by the filmmakers is rendered null and void by the personal interplay between our brimming imagination and the video sleeve itself – taking the raw material of an image and fabricating our personal narrative around it, tailoring them to fit our individual fears. Our imaginations are completely unhampered by hammy acting and sloppy special effects. Budgetary constraints and a lack of talent are no longer an issue. We are absorbing the visual vocabulary of the video's cover art to conjure up a more personalized horror. It is ours, all ours. We created this nightmare. We are making up our own horror movies – and we are the stars now.
Which is all to say: Mission accomplished. As a devout horror fan, I want to lay claim to the idea that the impact of these movies didn't begin and end with the viewing of the movies themselves, but the very ritual of engaging with the tangible aspects of these VHS tapes. The act of entering into the video store and walking down the horror aisle was integral to this ceremony, if not vital – immersing myself in the visual stimulus of over a hundred different horrific images, navigating the aisle until zeroing in on that one video cassette cover and letting it tell its own story within my imagination.
Written and directed by Ronald W. Moore.
Designing VHS covers for horror films is a lost art of inducing terror in children too young to watch the movies themselves. As effective salesmanship, these individual images were here to tempt the prospective renter into taking their movie home for the night. The need for an illustration so visually arresting that it convinced us to choose it over all others quickly became a game of graphic design one-upmanship, these sleeves presenting an image that presumably distilled the very essence of the movie onto the front cover – though, more often than not, the cover tended to be the best part of the movie.
Take H.R. Giger's poster for the 1985 film Future-Kill. Writer-director Ronald W. Moore allegedly begged Giger to design the poster art for this sci-fi/horror schlocker. Giger himself had absolutely no involvement in the actual production of the film whatsoever – but his slithery image found its way onto the movie’s cassette sleeve, luring naive renters into watching this fraternity brothers vs. mutant punks yarn. That black and white tendril of a finger stretches over the face of some alien-like mutant, more mechanical than organic, presenting the prospective renter with an unfulfilled vision of horror Future-Kill itself never quite ponies up to. The movie itself had little relation with what its cover promised, much to the dismay of those duped into dropping two bucks for a one-night rental. Future-Kill is often criticized for its cassette cover bait-and-switch – but it does testify to the power of a striking icon. The film itself dissipates from our memories, while Giger's cover design still lingers.
Written by Ed Naha. Directed by John Carl Buechler.
The cover for 1986's Troll is one of the more deceptively simple boxes on the horror section shelf. The image on the front cover is a close-up of – yes, a troll, complete with deep-set eyes and pointed ears. Both of its gnarled hands are gripping a child's rubber ball laced in yellow, red, and blue rings. The creature seems to be holding the ball out towards the viewer as a gift.
The tagline, printed alongside the troll's forehead, reads – "Come closer."
The quotation marks are there to indicate that the troll itself is saying this, as if to beckon me to take the ball out from its hands. It's mine. I lost it, it rolled away from me, he found it and now he wants to give it back. But to do so, to take back my ball – first, I must take a strep forward. I must somehow reduce the distance between the two of us and render myself even more vulnerable to this strange little creature. By obeying the troll's invitation, I had to willfully disavow everything my parents taught me: Don't talk to strangers, don't take candy from strangers, don't listen to trolls.
Two individuals, the troll and myself, were now locked in some sort of struggle – his video box in my hands, my ball in his. A decision had to be made: Should I or shouldn't I obey the creature’s innocuous request? What would happen to me if I came just a little bit closer?
Watching the film itself years later was inevitably a letdown. Nothing within the movie even came close to matching that considerable level of dread conjured up by its VHS sleeve. Not a young Julia Louis-Dreyfus, not an elderly June Lockhart – not even a stoned Sonny Bono could strike that same cord of terror within me that I had first felt by merely holding onto the box in the video store, however many years ago, suddenly forced into a life-or-death game of tug-of-war with this runty-looking troll.
NIGHT OF THE CREEPS
Written and directed by Fred Dekker.
I never could muster up the courage to rent Fred Dekker’s 1986 cult classic Night of the Creeps as a kid. My loss. Creeps is such a love letter to horror films that I regret not having encountered it sooner. Though it is a far more innocuous cover than such brutal movies as Cannibal Apocalypse, what Creeps offered was a certain level of narrative interplay that I couldn't help but feel, as a ten year old, uncomfortable engaging in.
The image is this: A window-paned door. We are ostensibly inside a house, our house, looking out through the window. Just on the other side – there is a young man. Dead. Zombified. In a tuxedo. His otherwise clean-cut and attractive face is laced in blood. His eyes have milked over. In his hand – a bouquet of roses, their petals drenched in blood. He has thrust the bouquet through the window, towards us, shattered glass in mid-splinter showering everywhere.
The tagline: The good news is your date is here. The bad news is… He’s dead.
Campy? Most definitely. But it’s that level of interplay that made these sleeves so much fun. If you were willing as a kid to play along, to allow your imagination to engage with the cover – any horror was possible. It all begins with the raw visual and textual information from the sleeve – but from there, it's up to the non-renter to take this data and extrapolate upon it however their imagination feels fit, stemming off into any number of offshoot narratives that encompass the vocabulary of the video.
First off – I am presumably not the intended target of this attack, given the fact that I’m not this zombie-dude’s date. That said, however – I’m the one being attacked here. The title itself proved confusing for me as I tried to comprehend just what these creeps were and why exactly this was supposed to be their night. Is my date a creep? Is our evening on the town a part of this proverbial night of creeps? Creeps, plural – as in, there are more creeps out there tonight. So where are the rest of them right now? Suddenly, I’m looking over my shoulder in hopes of making sure that I’m still alone in the horror section. I had a part to play – and here I was, playing it. All of a sudden, I'm some eighteen year old girl (presumably), waiting for my date to arrive and pick me up, only to discover he's one real big creep. And there are more creeps coming, as I've been told by the helpful and informative VHS cover.
THE COMPANY OF WOLVES
Written and directed by Neil Jordan.
Somehow I did get the chance to catch Neil Jordan’s adaptation of Angela Carter’s The Company of Wolves when I was younger – though truth be told, most of its soft-core art-house meanderings went right over my ten-year-old head. All for the better, frankly. I remember thinking this movie was a little too mushy for my pre-puberty tastes. That said, the video cover’s fusion of Grimm’s fairy tales and lycanthropic-horror was such an assault on my senses and sensibilities that I still can’t shake it.
The image stems from the film’s model of werewolf transformation. Rather than the human body altering itself into the beast, in Wolves the skin is literally shed like a rubber suit in order for the wolf to manifest. It lives within the individual, independent from the individual – and therefore, far more uncontrollable.
What the picture on the VHS sleeve displays is a bare-chested man in mid-transformation – his neck cricked back, eyes wide open in extreme agony. His lips are peeled disproportionately back as the snarling snout of a wolf slowly reaches out from the tight confines of the man’s mouth. The beast must rip itself free from its fleshly detention – and here we see it tearing this man apart, from the inside out, as a busty young woman in a Little Red Riding Hood outfit watches on in distress.
There’s a palpable sense of violence in the image. Incapable of embracing the sexual metaphors of this image as a kid, I did pick up on the notion that brewing inside us all is something far more primal than our individual exteriors can oftentimes express. Here, relenting control over our own body is an excruciatingly painful endeavor.
Is there something like that brewing inside of me?
EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN
Written by Sam Raimi and Scott Spiegel. Directed by Sam Raimi.
Full disclosure: My enthusiasm for this movie will never wane. I want to believe I'm a star pupil of Sam Raimi's School of Gonzo Film Pastiche Appreciation, taking to heart one of his film’s primary lessons that horror and comedy can go fluidly hand-in-hand – blending Romero's Night of the Living Dead effortlessly with The Three Stooges.
But before I was old enough to rent the movie, there was its cover to contend with – complete with its intense close-up of a bare skull, a pair of eyeballs settled into its sockets staring right back at me, sans eyelids, sans flesh, sans all that much distance between us.
Its tagline: Kiss your nerves good-bye!
Seemed like the guy on the cover sure had. His nerves had long since been stripped. There was nothing left of him but the bone. The eyes were all that remained – and here they were, silently accosting me. I couldn't tell if this decimated individual was in pain or in a fit of horrific ecstasy – but the eyes continue to stare, boring their way into my psyche while their intent remains a mystery. There was no way, no power imaginable in my possession that would allow me to let go of those eyes. They followed me through the video store. Stepping back, they kept staring. Stepping to the left, they only rolled with me. And there was never any flesh left over the bone to twitch, no eyelids left to flinch. All they could do was look – look at me, watching on as I ran out of the aisle. Grinning.
Sadly, the demise of VHS cassettes inevitably brought along the decline of this level of horror film interplay. Once DVDs overtook the market and video chains spread across the country, cover art began to matter less. Quantity was now key. Multiple copies now crammed the shelves. Rather that have a video facing outwards on the shelf, most video chains chose to stock their older movies in a library-style, exposing their spines and nothing else. The eye had nothing to latch onto but the title. There was no visual image to engage with. The imagination was lost.
Another offense brought along by DVD was the sacrilegious decision to redesign a movie's cover art. When most films made the transition from VHS to DVD, often their own packaging was rebranded, doing away with the original iconography of the film in favor of some new whitewashed, Photoshopped image.
But the final nail in the coffin was Netflix. Blockbuster may have helped hasten the decline of VHS cover art, but the true death blow was dealt by Netflix's ubiquity. In a single swing of the mail-order axe, Netflix has left us to drown in a river of red, an endless stream of bloody envelopes shipped directly to your very door. Individual packaging no longer exists, thanks to Netflix's insistence on mailing movies in their own generic, type-written sleeves. All I see now is red. Red, everywhere.
I can't hop on my bike and ride the five minutes to Video World now. They shut their doors years back. As did Blockbuster. Now, thanks to Netflix – the movies come to me. But in the process, I lost my imagination. Video stores have been rendered utterly obsolete now, replaced by virtual video stores that privatize the decision making process so much, too much – all I'm left with is the movie the filmmakers intended for me to watch, rather than the movie their covers manifested inside my mind.
I can't help but feel sad for the subsequent generation of ten year olds hoping to find their horror films. The horror section no longer exists at the back of the store, hiding – waiting for them to enter at their own risk. Now it’s only a click away. They no longer have to engage with a tangible product, taking the cassette into their hands (if they dare). A jpg of death just doesn't have the same ring to it. Our fear stimulus is dwindling due to this digital distancing-effect. There's no threat in front of the computer screen. There is no longer an image in which our subconscious can adhere itself to because the value of an image has been diminished by Netflix's persistent packing-brand, diluting the impact of the movie in our own memory.
We no longer have opportunity to manifest our own horror movies based upon the visual vocabulary of a video/DVD's cover, losing a level of engagement that actually enhanced the movie-viewing experience.
We no longer walk through that dark woods at the video store. That element of threat on the shelves found in the horror section, the very immersion into violence and horror – is long since dead.
Heaven pity you children, too young to rent these movies. How will you film your own nightmares now?
You'll just have to find another way of frightening yourselves.
December 6, 2011
“(Chapman is) a horror-drunk storytelling virtuoso master idiot. ”
— Time Out New York