Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Memory Bank: Gauntlet



During my freshman year at the University of Richmond in the fall of 1988, there wasn’t a whole lot to do, socially-speaking.  I was a skinny kid in big glasses who didn’t go out for sports and liked Star Trek.  

I had no interest in fraternities or the school’s religious clubs (though, truth-be-told, I did have an ever-so-brief flirtation with a Baptist Bible Study group, which helps to account for my knowledge of Scripture…)

Anyway, I met my beautiful wife, Kathryn, at the beginning of my sophomore year and my life changed for the (infinitely) better.

But before that ever happened,  I spent an inordinate (and probably unhealthy) amount of time in the Pier, the campus Student Building, playing a classic arcade game from Atari, called Gauntlet (1985).

As you may remember, Gauntlet was unique in that it was a four player arcade game.  Intrepid gamers could play as the Warrior, the Valkyrie, the Wizard and the Elf, at least originally.  The idea was to battle enemies such as ghosts and demons while traversing dungeon-like labyrinths and environs. 

I looked Gauntlet up on Wikipedia out of curiosity and it is apparently part of a genre called “hack and slash,” a phrase that pretty well describes the game’s content as remember it.

Among other things, Gauntlet is also apparently famous because it had a kind of computerized narrator who would voice warnings (“Your life is running out”) and reminders (such as “shots do not hurt other players…yet.”)   I can’t say as I remember much specifically about game play, only that we would play the bloody thing for hours, and lose a hell of a lot of quarters in the process.   It’s a good memory from a year that, in some respects, I’d rather forget.

In terms of characters, I always played as the Valkyrie -- the female warrior in the foursome -- in honor of my enduring love of the same-named character from Battle Beyond the Stars (1980). 

I can’t remember why we did so, but on one memorable night in 1988, my pals and I drove downtown instead of to the student building to play Gauntlet at a bustling city arcade in Richmond, one very close to the now-defunct Byrd Theater, if memory serves. 

I should have been studying for an upcoming computer science exam, but instead, I think we were out at the arcade from midnight to 2:00 am, and I blew twenty-five dollars on the infernal machine.

Ah, to be eighteen and dumb as shit again…

Anyway t I’m thinking I really need a restored Gauntlet arcade console in my rec room.

That…and an air hockey table, but that’s the subject of a different post.  I'll just close this one by saying I recently visited the University of Richmond campus for the first time in probably a decade, and was deeply disappointed, though not surprised, to see that Gauntlet was long gone.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Memory Bank: Newberry's Department Store


Today I want to remember another cherished location/store from my youth: Newberry's Department Store.

Founded by John Newberry in 1911 (1877-1954), Newberry's Department Store thrived in the 20th century.  In 1919, there were 17 stores in the nation; by 1954 there were 475 such stores in states including Iowa, Minnesota, Colorado, and North Dakota.


And of course, we had a Newberry's store in New Jersey, where I grew up.  

The store was colloquially known as a "Five and Dime" store, and the Newberry's I went to innumerable times was located in Cedar Grove, N.J. (near Verona), in the same shopping strip where I saw Star Wars (1977) at least once, at Cinema 23.

I can still see the layout of Newberry's in my mind's eye.  

Customers would enter through the glass doors to find themselves at the jewelry and perfume kiosks. 

At the back of the store was this huge area where fabric was cut to specifications, and sold to consumers.  

I often went to the store in the seventies so that my mother could buy fabric for our clothes. That's another sign of time's passage, I suppose. Back in the seventies, my mother sewed the clothes for everyone in our family.  I have many memories of standing next to this huge flat table in Newberry's, and watching a store employee cut cloth from bolts of fabric for several consumers, including my mother.

But I recall best what was on the left hand side of the store, at least from the entrance.  

First, there was a book kiosk that had young readers books for Scooby Doo and Valley of the Dinosaurs.  I loved reading those books. I had several of them.


Then, beyond the book kiosk, there was a long lunch and soda fountain, and I remember at least two occasions in which my Mom bought me and my sister ice cream sodas there.


Then, there was an opening to the garden center and my favorite spot: the toy department.  I will never forget, in 1975 or 1976, seeing a huge display -- right there at the entrance of the department -- for Star Trek and Space:1999 jigsaw puzzles.

The toy department itself was great, and I loved it. In fact, I remember being very happy, at age 6 or 7, when my Mom would let me peruse the toy department alone while she was buying fabric.  

It was there, I believe, that I first saw for sale the giant Mattel Eagle from Space:1999.


And it was there, as late as 1980, that I purchased several Mattel Flash Gordon figures for the ridiculous price of one dollar a piece.  I remember begging my Mom to go to Newberry's so I could get as many of those figures as possible. 

To this day, I still have my Newberry's Flash, Ming, Lizard Woman and Dr. Zarkov.  (If only they had sold Thun, the Lion Man there...).


Sadly, Newberry's filed for bankruptcy in 1997.  I'm sure I didn't visit the store much after I moved to Virginia to attend the University of Richmond in 1988.  

But to this day, I can see the entire layout of this particular Five and Dime when I close my eyes. I also remember the thrill of being a kid, going into the store those glass doors, and heading straight for the awesome toy department.

Saturday, August 18, 2018

Super Powered Comic-Con (September 8, 2018)



Guess which side I'm taking?

This debate is coming up at South Piedmont, where I am Department Chair for Humanities and Social Sciences, and helping to organize the school's first comic-con. 

 I hope anyone in the Charlotte/Monroe area will come by to watch!

The event is September 8, 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.



Friday, August 17, 2018

The 40th Anniversary of...Bog (1978)



Oneida County, Wisconsin, is celebrating the 40th anniversary of a horror film made there in the 1970's: Bog.  

This low-budget terror never got a theatrical release in the 1970's and has had only spotty release on VHS.  I did see it to review it for Horror Films of the 1970's.  Now, this regional horror from a bygone era is getting the home-town premiere it never had.

You can follow the link below to hear me talk about Bog at Morning Edition, WXPR: 


Saturday, August 11, 2018

Saturday Morning Cult-TV Blogging: Sigmund and the Sea Monsters: "Make Room for Big Daddy"


When they break Big Daddy's shell-o-vision set, Blurp and Slurp decide to run away and move in with Sigmund, who has just been given an old TV set for his club house residence.

When Sigmund's brothers take over the club-house, they play the TV much too loud, earning the ire of the nosy neighbor, old Miss Ettles (Margaret Hamilton). 

In attempt to get rid of Slurp and Blurp, Johnny (Johnny Whitaker) and Scott (Scott Kolden) leave a not for Big Daddy about where to find his sons.  Big Daddy runs the monsters off, but then decides he wants to live in the clubhouse, himself.

Johnny tape records the voice of Sweet Mama, finally, to scare off Big Daddy. 

But more problems arise: Miss Ettles has called the sheriff over the noise from the TV in the clubhouse.


"Make Room for Big Daddy" is a fun episode of Sigmund and the Sea Monsters that, much like other episodes, features the sea monster family more prominently than it does Sigmund. It is clear that the Sea Monsters have become the most popular, and most utilized characters on the series. Here, they set up residence in the Club House to enjoy the television.

Margaret Hamilton guest stars in this episode, and her final scene in the episode sees her coming face to face with Sigmund screaming in terror. Of course, Hamilton is best known for playing a monster, herself. She portrayed the Wicked Witch in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Otherwise, this story continues the series gag of featuring monster-related TV programs and films. Big Daddy wants to watch a movie called The Godzilla-Father (The Godfather [1972]), and a TV show called The Cod Squad.

Next week: "It's Your Move."

Thursday, August 09, 2018

Kolchak Blogging: "Horror in the Heights" (December 20, 1974)


On December 20, 1974, the short-lived ABC supernatural TV series, Kolchak: The Night Stalker aired one of its creepiest and most memorable installments.

In "Horror in the Heights," our Watergate-Era, crusading investigative reporter, Carl Kolchak (Darren McGavin) combats a devilish creature who can appear to an unwary victim as that person's most trusted friend or relative.

Penned by Jimmy Sangster (The Horror of Frankenstein [1970], Fear in the Night [1972]), "Horror in the Heights" specifically concerns a mythical Indian beast called a "Rakshasa" preying on Jewish senior citizens in Roosevelt Heights, a section of Chicago that Kolchak (Darren McGavin) reports doesn't "appear in the city guidebook." That's probably so because municipal authorities don't want to draw attention to the poverty-ridden slum. It's a place, in the INS reporter's words, where "fixed incomes" battle "galloping inflation."

Lately, there have been a rash of deaths in the Heights, and the non-plussed police officers blame hungry rats for the corpses -- stripped of skin -- that seem to be popping up at an alarming rate. Senior citizen Harry Starman (Phil Silvers) has a different opinion, however. He believes that the owner of a local Indian Restaurant is actually a Nazi, and that this foreigner is behind the killings of the elderly locals. As his evidence Harry shows Kolchak the swastika graffiti painted all over the Heights, and particularly in the Hindu's backyard.


What Kolchak discovers, however, is that the Swastika is actually a Hindu symbol, one often deployed to "ward off evil spirits." And it isn't the rats doing the killing either, but rather the demonic Rakshasa or "flesh-eater."

Far from being a Nazi, the old Hindu has devoted sixty years of his life to hunting the Rakshasas, beasts who "send emissaries into the living world" to see if the time is ripe for a re-appearance.

And when, precisely is the time ripe for the Rakshasa's return? The old Indian confides in Kolchak that it will be an epoch of "mistrust," "moral decline" and "decadence."

In other words...now.

The only weapon that can destroy a Rakshasa is a crossbow loaded with steel bolts, but the Hindu warns Kolchak that the Rakshasa is fiendishly clever...that it can appear to its enemy in the guise of a person most trusted and most beloved.

Kolchak isn't certain he believes all this, but then-- in darkest night -- he spots his dear friend, elderly Miss Emily, alone in the dark before him. Kolchak tells her not to approach, but she reaches out for him gently, saying that she's frightened...



Like the best episodes of this exquisite old horror series, there's a seedy, twilight, slightly unhinged aura to "Horror in the Heights." Early in the episode, for instance, an old Jewish man named Buck is confronted by the Rakshasa after playing an illicit game of poker on Friday night. Gambling on Friday is against Hebrew edict, and the Rakshasa takes the form of Buck's guilt: as his disapproving rabbi. Caught in the act, the repentant old man confesses to his rabbi, and the beast...takes him.

In a clever composition, the monster appears as the smiling rabbi when Buck's back is to the camera. But when Buck's front is facing the camera (in the reverse angle...) we see the back of an inhuman, hulking creature...moving into an embrace of death.

Another creepy scene involves a sweet, bickering, elderly couple taking a detour through a dark alley by nightfall, and encountering the Rakshasa. The camera goes wobbly in an immediacy-provoking first-person subjective shot, and the blighted urban location is convincing...and menacing.



The underlying theme of the show is that, in modern society, the elderly are preyed upon by all sorts of "monsters." In real life, those monsters are called poverty or crime. In the twilight world of Kolchak, the monster is a Rakshasa, a living embodiment of an old man's fear that he doesn't know "who to trust" in a world that has passed him by. Kolchak and his boss, Vincenzo, argue about the reliability of Harry's beliefs and Kolchak points out that "Old doesn't have to be synonymous with senility."

Old Age is an issue also affecting the Hindu Rakshasa hunter, who has grown so infirm that he can no longer complete his life's work: destroying the monster. He says to Kolchak, in a line I love (and I'm afraid that we will all eventually relate to, over the years): "I never thought I would be old, but look at me now..."



Kolchak: The Night Stalker often trades in ethnic myth and lore (Native American, last week), and "Horror of the Heights" is no exception to that rule. There's some nice misdirection in the use of the Swastika, a symbol which has come to be associated with Nazis, hate-crime, racism and anti-Semitism. Here, the symbol -- in a Hindu incarnation -- represents the "Sun" and "grounded-ness." 

Similarly, the episode gets the ghoulish details of the Rakshasa mythology right: According to Wikipedia, "Rakshasas are notorious for disturbing sacrifices, desecrating graves, harassing priests, possessing human beings, and so on. Their fingernails are venomous, and they feed on human flesh and spoiled food. They are shape-changers, illusionists, and magicians."

Kolchak: The Night Stalker often made for rewarding viewing not merely because of the scary scenarios, or the seedy texture, but because of the colorful performances and overarching sense of gallows or black humor. That trait is in evidence here, too. Phil Silvers is terrific as the frightened Harry Starman, and there's a scene involving an obnoxious exterminator who eats a sandwich while spraying toxic chemicals on a yard. And Kolchak's interview of a bored waiter at the Indian Restaurant is droll to say the least.

Finally, "Horror in the Heights" ends in the manner of all truly chilling campfire stories; by explicitly reminding us that the terror is still out there. As Kolchak dictates the tale of the Rakshasa and Roosevelt Heights into his tape recorder, he looks up -- almost at us -- and reminds travelers to be wary should they ever be walking alone at night on a "lonely country road"... and happen to see their "favorite aunt" coming towards them in the moonlight.


Next week: "Mr. R.I.N.G."

The Cult-TV Faces of: Scrubs

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