A Crude and Rude Unlicensed Zap Gun Abomination for the NES: CHILLER

CHILLER for the Nintendo Entertainment System


(0/5)

Pros: Blood & Guts on the NES! A few clever moments.


Cons: Pointless and absurdly short; terrible response from zapper input; graphics and music are abysmal

One of the coolest yet most underutilized accessories for the Nintendo NES was the zap gun. Included with early versions of the console (in conjunction with the iconic Duck Hunt game), this device was shaped similarly to a futuristic pistol and allowed a player to “shoot” targets on the screen. As great as this prospect sounds, there were less than two dozen games that were compatible with the zapper by the time the NES has run its course, making the device seem (in much the same manner as the ) more like a gimmick than an honest part of the NES gaming experience. Most of the light gun titles operated in essentially the same way: shoot all the stuff that pops up onscreen before time and/or life runs out. Despite the fact that it’s kind of hard to screw up this established formula, one title stands on its own as not only the worst zap gun game, but perhaps one of the most terrible NES games of any type: 1990’s Chiller.

be your own dirty harry
Nothing more satisfying that blasting ducks with the Zapper…er something like that.

Based on the , a game which promised – and delivered – some graphic violence and even brief nudity (note: the nudity was cut from the NES version), Chiller comes out of the horror movie universe and takes the premise of the player being a sort of ghost buster, blasting various ghosts and ghouls. Or at least that’s what the manual claims – in reality, one goes through the game not only shooting obvious monsters, but also people who have been strung up in various medieval torture devices. In case it wasn’t obvious given Nintendo’s history of censoring any title that didn’t fall in line with their strict policies with regard to content, Chiller was one of those unlicensed titles released without the Nintendo Seal of Approval, housed not in the traditional solid gray cartridge, but in a slightly misshapen one that’s a sickly-looking shade of light blue. Releasing this game without Nintendo’s approval did allow the developer (American Game Cartridges, who also released the similarly controversial Death Race, a crude predecessor to Carmageddon) to include as much outrageous content in the game as they wanted, but it also meant that the title as a whole plays like it was developed in about fifteen minutes in someone’s basement.

WTF
WTF?


Chiller includes all of four static screens during the entire course of its gameplay, starting off in a graveyard before moving into a haunted hallway and finally into two separate screens which are set in a dungeon. Each screen offers the player the chance to shoot various sprites that either pop up or roam across the screen before a time limit runs out – the graveyard, for instance, has a nun pushing a baby carriage, a hand tossing human skulls into a squirming pit of doom, and even a cheerleader who can be shot to pieces. On each screen, certain objects can be interacted with by targeting specific areas of the screen with the gun, leading to a few genuinely clever moments. In the hallway, a hole can be blasted into the floor so that a woman fleeing from a giant, ghostly face falls to her doom into it and a severed hand can be shot so that it falls to the ground only to be picked up and carried away by a dog. The torture chambers offer even more gruesome interactions: a man suspended above a river of blood can be fed to a crocodile swimming below by shooting the pulley that’s holding him up, while various people can be either blasted apart or tortured to death based on where the player aims the zapper. There’s nothing quite like reaching the final screen, only to be able to not only reduce two chained humans to piles of blood and viscera but also ensure that one unfortunate man’s skull is crushed in a vice.

double wtf
Double WTF???!?

Sound like fun? Well it is…to a certain extent. Unfortunately, a minimal amount of imagination or actual craft has gone into this title. Graphically speaking, Chiller is not only incredibly simplistic but also positively horrendous, appearing to have been one of the first titles made for the NES, not a title that was developed during the system’s heyday. It’s almost laughable to compare this to most anything else that was produced in 1990: games like the positively vibrant Ducktales, Chip ‘n’ Dale’s Rescue Rangers, or frankly most any of the hundreds of other NES titles look even more stunning when placed alongside the drab, dull, and utterly lifeless Chiller. The game’s sound scheme (which consists of a single, heinously repetitive music track and a variety of crummy blip bloop sound effects) doesn’t improve the gaming experience at all and actually makes it all the more completely infuriating. Once the player reaches the end of the fourth screen, the game simply repeats an infinite number of times until the player no longer hits enough targets to continue, or he collects every one of a series of “talismans” that appear throughout the game. There’s no honest reward for collecting all the talismans since all one gets is a congratulatory screen of text. Woo! I sincerely doubt any player would honestly want to continue playing this game after a few minutes: there simply is no point.  Did I mention this game is two player?

look it those graphics!
Lookit those graphics!

Speaking from a technical standpoint, the game doesn’t impress either: each time the zap gun is fired, it initiates a black screen in which all potential targets momentarily show up (in a nut shell, this is how the gun detects where the player is targeting and is essential to the gun’s function). On most games which utilize the zapper, this screen appears for such a brief period of time that it’s all but imperceptible to the human eye. The corresponding screens in Chiller, on the other hand, definitely are visible, and since a player can see where all potential targets onscreen are, any sense of honest challenge in the game (at least relating to finding targets) is eliminated.

that makes me wanna play...
Well that certainly makes me wanna play the game….


Knowing that the zapper is incompatible with hi-def televisions, I broke out an old tube TV to test how well the zapper works on this game and was generally unimpressed with the game’s responsiveness. Honestly, this same problem exists on most zap gun games to some extent, but Chiller sets a new standard in how poorly a game responds to zapper input. I should point out that one can play this title using only the controller, but as is typically the case, the game becomes infinitely more difficult and nearly impossible at that point since a target reticule has to be manually (read: slowly) maneuvered around the screen. By the time a player using the controller has been lucky enough to hit a few targets, the time limit will almost certainly have been reached.

hallway
Every screen in the game is seen in this review. As Porky Pig would say…THAT’S ALL FOLKS!

I recall many times looking over the display box for Chiller at the local game rental shop and can now safely say that I am most glad that I did not choose to rent it at any point. (Considering that the cover art proudly proclaims that “Dead People Are Cool,” I’m unsure how I could possibly have resisted this temptation…) It boggles the mind that a game not only this short and unsubstantial but also this undeniably shoddy would even be sold at any point, and I can only imagine how disappointed I would have been had I wasted my hard-earned allowance on a complete P.o.S. like this. While some unlicensed NES titles were equally as good and maybe even better than their licensed counterparts, a truly reprehensible game like Chiller throws a bad light on these frequently quirky, very obscure titles as a whole (I can safely say that the infamous Bible Adventures – you know the game where – looks flawless in comparison). In the end, I would urge any vintage gamer – even those who, like myself, are fascinated with the unloved and neglected titles out there – to avoid Chiller at all costs; surely, there are much better ways to kill time than this.

guillotine

Most Bizarre Movie Ever? Maybe, But It’s Also Pure Genius: 1977’s HOUSE

HOUSE (a.k.a. HAUSU)


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(5/5)

Pros: Cheerfully deranged and gloriously imaginative = shows the limitless potential of cinema.  DVD package is outstanding.


Cons: To say that some people wouldn’t like this movie is putting it nicely

Starting off with a fairly typical haunted house-type story, director Nobuhiko Obayashi’s House (released by the Japanese Toho Studio in 1977) from there ventures out into no man’s land, becoming one of the most wacky films ever produced in the process. Awash with unadulterated creativity, the film makes nary one lick of sense from a typical standpoint, but exists as a truly one-of-a-kind cinematic experience that demonstrates the limitless possibilities of the cinematic medium. Undoubtedly, this movie would not be to all tastes: though a box-office hit upon release in Japan (despite the fact that it is thoroughly un-Japanese), it’s been dismissed by numerous critics over the years and has (admittedly, unsurprisingly) been declared by some to be completely unwatchable . For the select few who would “get” this movie in the first place though, House is a film that makes any and all others look hopelessly dull and a bit pathetic in comparison, a piece that would provide a jolt to the brain of audiences made apathetic by typical Hollywood drivel.

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The film begins by introducing the viewer to seven Japanese teenagers who are planning their summer vacation. Each of the girls is identified by their defining characteristic: the smart one is called “Prof,” the chubby girl is “Mac” (short for stomach), the tough girl is known as “Kung Fu,” and so on. The main character here is called “Gorgeous,” who is having problems coming to terms with the fact that her widower father is planning to be remarried. When the girls’ collective vacation plans fall through, Gorgeous invites the gang to join her at a remote mansion owned by her enigmatic aunt. Once the group arrives however, they discover that the aunt’s house itself appears to have an appetite for young girls, and the teens begin to disappear one by one. As the survivors try to figure out a way to escape the estate, Gorgeous begins to discover how similar she and her aunt truly are…

house

Is that actually the story for this film? In a nutshell, yes, but the House experience is about much more than just the basic storyline which is has to be said is made all but irrelevant by about the five minute mark. In the hands of Obayashi, a director who was known primarily for work in television commercials prior to this feature, House becomes a gleefully gruesome, energetic thrill ride of innovative and playful cinematic technique that resembles what the results might have been had renegade Japanese filmmaker Seijun Suzuki (known for his eccentric crime thrillers) made a horror flick. The script written by Chiho Katsura is little more than a framework which allows Obayashi to let his creative sense run wild and the director winds up unleashing some of the most mind-boggling visuals and sequences ever put to celluloid. The screen is frequently drenched in vivid color or overrun with crude (i.e. purposely imperfect and obviously artificial) but clever special effects, and the pace of the film is simply relentless. Virtually any camera and cinematic technique imaginable is showcased here: we have a truckload of iris effects, split screen sequences, marvelous painted backgrounds combined with live-action foregrounds, chroma key effects, stop-motion, straight-up animation and more. The optical printer certainly gets a workout during the course of this movie, and it leaves one with the notion that Obayashi can’t make it more than a minute without astounding the viewer with some cinematic magic. As wonderful as it is to marvel at all the eye candy though, it’s equally as tempting to focus on the small details, fascinating settings, and constantly evolving backgrounds. There really is a ridiculous amount of amazing things to behold when watching this film.

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As may be suggested by that description, it would be easy to point out that this film is entirely incoherent. I’d have to suggest however that viewers who would dismiss House on those grounds are completely missing the point of the film. It’s all but impossible to take this cheerfully demented film seriously on any sort of level, and declaring the wholly dream-like and surrealist piece to be “illogical” is not only stating the obvious but actually a ridiculous statement to make. House is quite clearly told from a young person’s perspective; the result of an imagination running wild and creating scenarios that wouldn’t make any sense to an adult who knows better than to be caught up in fits of fancy. I could easily make a case for this film being a fantasy derived from and taking place in the mind of a young teenager struggling to deal with “real world” or “big people” problems. Gorgeous seems not at all able to truly deal with her mother being “replaced” by the apparently random lover her father has introduced into her life, and many of her seemingly absurd actions in the film appear to the be the result of her unwillingness or inability to come to terms with her situation.

piano

In many ways, I think House was designed for viewing by younger audiences: the film exists as a pop culture nightmare of the type that kids (having been exposed to an endless string of advertisements) would (for better or worse) be accustomed to. Playing as a sort of live-action horror cartoon, House’s editing scheme is extremely manic to the point of resembling the music videos that would turn up a few years after this film’s production, and there’s a noticeable tendency to focus on idiosyncratic detail that most films would gloss over (again, this seems to fall in line with the film being told from a child’s perspective; hell, it might just be the best screen representation of what ADHD feels and looks like). Undoubtedly, the main problem for western audiences is that, in terms of what the majority of American viewers would classify as being acceptable viewing for children, House is way too sexual, violent, and downright subversive. Perhaps it goes without saying that this film defies classification or categorization, but since the film’s ideal target audience would probably have no way of seeing it, it’s not all that surprising that the film has often been misunderstood and marginalized. In the eyes of viewers accustomed to gritty ‘70s cinema like The French Connection, The Exorcist, or even Jaws, House is a true anomaly, a film that was decades ahead of its time when produced and may as well have been beamed in from another dimension.

blue

The actors assembled for this film were mostly amateurs, and it shows since they often seem positively oblivious to what’s going on around them. That said, I think the style suits the material: it would be really hard to swallow this film had the cast been entirely serious about it. All the younger females in the film are spunky and cute in their own way, and established actress Yōko Minamida, who plays the aunt, comes across as being very creepy at times. In terms of the horror movie elements, House takes a while to get going, but eventually unloads some fairly graphic and gory delights. During one scene, one of the girls is attacked by a piano which bites off her fingers and proceeds to devour her whole, and the final third of the film features quite a bit of blood flow and spray. Most of the gore sequences are more tongue-in-cheek amusing than outright horrific, but the film would be fairly shocking to some viewers (and not just because of the carnage). (written by Mickie Yoshino and Asei Kobayashi and performed by Japanese rock group Godiego) is outstanding, continually blaring over any and all action taking place, and Yoshitaka Sakamoto’s photography is actually quite stunning, often shooting from unconventional angles. Finally, I have to commend Toho’s art department for creating some extremely eye-catching and colorful sets – the vast majority of which were constructed in studio. The background paintings seen throughout the film (check out how the skies look in many scenes) are particularly excellent.

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At this point, I should point out that this film does have a few minor flaws. For one, I could do without the pointless asides during the final third of the picture which show a male teacher coming to the girls’ rescue. Almost slapstick in nature, these brief scenes take away from the momentum and pure insanity going on back at the titular abode. I’ve also got to say that most of the green screen effects seen in the film look pretty awful. I know I said earlier that the effects here were designed to be imperfect, but there are several scenes in which obvious outlines surround characters and objects, indicating that they’ve been superimposed onto other backgrounds. This is frequently annoying and quite distracting: Toho’s effects team had done better work in the mid-’60s on many of the Godzilla films and I’m not quite sure why they look so horrendous more than a decade later. Remember, Star Wars was made this same year.

swirl

I can’t stress enough that House is a film that has to be seen to be believed, one that seems to have inspired a multitude of Japanese films over the years, and one that possibly even led to the country’s enduring fascination with all things pop culture. It’s impossible even for me – a viewer well-versed in the wild worlds of cult films and Japanese cinema – to come up with another film that’s even remotely similar to this, and I’d be lying if I called this film anything less than one of my all time favorites – House has to make at least my top three. Absolutely marvelous in terms of its visuals, House deserves placement among the most artistically and creatively satisfying pieces of cinema ever produced, and I think most any viewer could appreciate that aspect of it even if they don’t like or are confused by the film as a whole. Highly, highly, HIGHLY recommended – this singular classic of Japanese cinema is an absolute must for viewers who enjoy strange and/or cult movies.

Hausu


A really nice selection of DVD extras – even for a Criterion disc. “Constructing a House” is a rewarding 45-minute featurette in which director Nobuhiko Obayashi, story scenarist Chigumi Obayashi (the director’s daughter), and screenwriter Chiho Katsura discuss and explain the project. The DVD also includes a short appreciation piece with film director Ti West and Nobuhiko Obayashi’s entire, 39-minute and suitably wacky 1966 experimental film Emotion. Picture quality on the disc (original full screen format, in Japanese with English subtitles) is outstanding.


7/10 : A fair amount of gore and extreme violence, but most of it is handled in a comic manner. This is not nearly as rigorous as many of today’s horror films.  Weirdness factor is out of the ballpark however.


1/10 : Minimal profanity; some innuendo.


6/10 : Underlying sexual themes exist throughout the film and there’s a decent amount of topless and rear nudity from some cute Japanese girls.


10/10: Is this the most weirdo movie ever? Quite possibly, and it’s also one of the most impressive creative visions ever put to celluloid.


“Just let me eat you…”


TRAILER:

Safety Comes a Long Way in the World’s Premiere Motorsport: 1

1

(4/5)

Pros: Nicely captures the sights and sounds of F1; crash course history is pretty decent; lots of amazing archival footage

Cons: I really mean that this is a “crash course” examination of F1…

It’s always seemed a bit odd to me, a longtime motor racing fan, that Formula 1, F1 for short and indisputably the most popular form of auto racing in the world, has never really taken hold in the United States. It’s easy to make an argument for F1 being a European-based sport (after all, most tracks, teams, and drivers are European), but while the vast majority of American race fans are content to watch drivers circle into infinity on the tracks of NASCAR, I remember many a day in my youth waking up at the crack of dawn to watch live F1 events (since they in many cases take place on the other side of the globe, F1 events usually play in the middle of the night or in the early morning in the United States). In recent years, Formula 1 seems to have gained a bit more prominence in the minds of the American race fan however, in part due to the construction of the United States’ first purpose-built F1 facility in Austin, Texas. Several films in recent years have capitalized on this new-found interest, including the excellent 2011 documentary (about the man who became the sport’s biggest star before his death behind the wheel in 1994), the 2013 docudrama Rush (focusing on the famed rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt), and now the documentary 1 which deals largely with how the sport’s safety has improved over time.

fuk1lFrom bomb to missile…

Produced in 2013 and directed by Paul Crowder, 1 begins with a bang by presenting footage of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix in which the car of British driver Martin Brundle went airborne and flipped end over end before coming to rest in a gravel trap. In previous years, this accident almost certainly would have proven fatal, but Brundle not only escaped from the vehicle more or less under his own power, but actually returned to the pitlane and got into a backup car to continue the race. Anyone familiar with the sport of Formula 1 would know that this level of safety wasn’t always a guarantee – during a period from about 1967-78, an almost jaw-dropping number of drivers were killed while racing. As a documentary, 1 seeks not just to tell the basic story of Formula 1 from its early days as a thrilling and dangerous post-WWII diversion to the modern era in which incredible technology, glitz and glamour threaten to replace the racing as the sport’s primary point of interest, but rather to reveal how this premier form of motorsport cleaned up its safety record over the years.

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Getting air while circling the immense Nürburgring circuit.

During the course of the documentary, 1 devotes significant time to detailing the history of some of the sport’s most recognizable drivers, teams, tracks, and situations. While it’s cool to hear about such legendary personalities as Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna, and Graham Hill, I find the information relating to the classic racing venues to be more interesting. On that note, Crowder’s film chronicles some unforgettable moments from the legendary Monaco street circuit (undoubtedly the most famous and historic track still in use by Formula 1 today), the incredibly fast Monza track in Italy, the famous (or is it infamous?) Watkins Glen circuit in New York State, and the unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring in Germany. Twenty-two kilometers in length, there are few in the world that would challenge the Nürburgring’s reputation as the world’s greatest and most challenging race circuit, yet the ever-increasing speed of Formula 1 helped ensure that the sport no longer uses the facility. It’s also pretty amazing to watch throughout the film as the typical F1 car (each of which is hand-designed by the individual teams from top to bottom, including the engine) have evolved from being clunky and frail vehicles that were little more than bombs on wheels to seeming like jet fighters that are planted to the ground.

yikes!
That is an ugly F1 car.

Easily the best thing about 1 is the presentation of astonishing archival footage and photographs (wait until you experience a lap of the from the perspective of Senna’s in-car camera). The program is assembled and edited quite well, occasionally taking a break from the chronological history to focus on more detailed discussion of various related topics. I also really appreciated the fine selection of classic and contemporary interviews that were conducted with various people who were involved with the sport. It’s always cool to hear from drivers like Jackie Stewart, Jacky Ickx, Damon Hill, and Mario Andretti as well as the those who worked behind the scenes: team owners, mechanics, and members of the F1 management. Along with the strong visuals provided in the film is a well-assembled soundtrack that contains some pretty classic tunes that serve to represent the time periods in which the story takes place very nicely.

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F1 cars head through the esses at Watkins Glen.

On the downside, 1 almost plays like a blow-by-blow history of Formula 1 fatalities and checklist of safety innovations than as a more straight-forward history of the sport, spending the majority of its duration covering the period of the early to mid 1970s. At a certain juncture of the documentary, it seems like another driver is getting killed every three to five minutes in the chronology. Obviously, the material in this film was taken straight from actual history and the sport was overflowing with tragedy in the early 1970s. Still, it seems to me that the film could have perhaps been handled a little differently so as to ensure that the sense of loss comes through more poignantly. As it stands, I could almost see a viewer being turned off of F1 due to the “consistency of death” that surrounded the sport or even becoming numb to the tragedy that’s present in the film. To me, that doesn’t much do justice to the drivers who lost their lives while piloting F1 cars, and the final five minutes of the documentary, which play as one extended advertisement for the sport, just seems a hastily-executed and empty conclusion to a film that I would have wanted to be more substantial at the end of the day.


Driver Jackie Stewart speeds past a mess of burning cars in Spain, 1970.

An additional issue I had with the film was that there was too large an amount of time spent on the 1976 season – the same story was told by filmmaker Ron Howard in his fictionalized film Rush. Obviously, I can see why this was done – the tie-in factor probably would have helped both films gain some exposure, but considering that many championship seasons are barely mentioned during the program, it seems questionable to spend this much time on a season which wasn’t ultimately that noteworthy in the bigger picture of the sport. I should also point out that although this film does include footage of fatal racing accidents, it shies away from really presenting the grim reality of how some of these drivers were killed. This could either be a good or bad thing depending on an individual viewer’s point of view, but having done a substantial amount of research into racing accidents over the years, I thought the film seemed as if it was brushing the sport’s darkest moments under the rug a bit (the for instance, was absolutely horrible in real life and played out under extremely dramatic circumstances; I don’t think the documentary does justice to just how bad it was). In truth, the producers of the film probably had to do this in order to secure the much-needed support of Formula 1 administration, but I didn’t much care for the sugar coating.

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A dejected David Purley walks away after failing to be able to pull fellow driver Roger Williamson from his burning vehicle. Purley, who stopped his car and thus abandoned the race in an attempt to save Williamson’s life, was awarded the George Medal for courage due to his actions.

In the end, 1 is outstanding for what it is, even though it perhaps isn’t the objective and comprehensive program that someone looking to be introduced to Formula 1 might have wanted. This program conveniently ignores large portions of the sport’s history in its attempt to detail the innumerable innovations that have made racing significantly more safe in recent decades, but I suppose it would be an agreeable (literal) crash course in F1 for interested viewers. Most longtime fans wouldn’t be learning much from the documentary, but as I mentioned, it’s always cool to see this vintage footage and hear from the people who experienced F1 during its glory days and helped make the sport what it is today. Though it’s imperfect, I’d still highly recommend the film to anyone interested in motor racing in general or Formula 1 specifically.

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Today’s F1 is a far cry from what it was in the 1970s.

** Final note: at one point during 1, the film presents a brief image of a trackside sign that exclaims a “warning” to race attendees that “motor racing is dangerous.” I feel this point is often forgotten in an era where auto racing for the most part has been relatively safe in recent years. The illusion of safety was shattered at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix which took place in early October: French driver Jules Bianchi was critically injured when his race car slammed into a crane removing a stranded car from the race course. I’ve studied this accident and there’s no doubt in my mind that modern F1 safety tech enabled Bianchi to survive an accident which at any other point in history would unquestionably have been fatal. Unfortunately, despite what race broadcasters, drivers, and documentary filmmakers would have us believe or like to believe themselves, there is always some element of risk involved in getting in any sort of car, especially one designed to travel and indeed race at speeds that often fall in the 150-200 mile per hour range. While the traditional causes of driver fatalities (basilar skull fractures; fire; internal injuries) have been mitigated, there is always the chance of “freak accidents” which can be very difficult to predict or prevent: there never should be a point at which driver safety is not improving.

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Bianchi being extricated from his car following a tremendous impact at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.


No extras on the DVD/Blu-ray, widescreen editions from the Millennium Studio. This film has screened numerous times this year on the NBC Sports Network as a supplement to their coverage of the 2014 Formula 1 season.


2/10 : Generally non-graphic but nonetheless violent footage of sometimes fatal auto racing accidents.


1/10 : Minimal profanity; much of this is bleeped in the version of the film that’s played on television.


1/10 : A few isolated instances of blurred topless nudity; I’m unsure as to whether this footage is similarly obscured on the DVD release.


4/10 : Probably a must for auto racing enthusiasts, with a ton of fascinating archival footage and interviews.


“We want to see something exceptional, breathtaking; that we think can’t be done. We want to see gladiators, warriors, and let’s face it: we do like to see a bit of a shunt. But we don’t want to see deaths. It is incredible how this changed and suddenly it became unacceptable to die in the name of sport.”

The Weird Side of the Soviet Union: MONSTERS BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

MONSTERS BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN on Animal Planet

(4/5)

Pros: Well-organized; interesting variety of subjects; more level-headed and objective than is usual for this type of program

Cons: It’s a speculative documentary: some folks just won’t appreciate it; sensationalist title doesn’t represent the material very well

Refreshingly straight-forward in both its presentation and in the various hypotheses it proposes, the two-hour special Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain, which premiered October 26, 2014 on the Animal Planet Channel, stands in stark contrast to increasingly manipulative (and goofy) programs like the previous year’s Russian Yeti: The Killer Lives which handles some of the same subject matter. Directed by Gareth Sacala, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain operates in much the same manner as an episode of Monsters and Mysteries in America in that it features discussion of a half dozen or so stories of the unknown which originated in and around the former Soviet Union. A few of these stories specifically involve the existence of unknown creatures which seems to be a very popular subject on television these days, but the majority deal more generally with unexplained phenomena.

The real monster
Subliminal messaging: is this the REAL monster behind the Iron Curtain?

The program starts with what in my opinion is its most interesting segment, one which seems to have been pulled straight out of the pages of Dark Matters: Twisted but True: a brief examination of the history of rather unorthodox experiments that took place in the Soviet Union during the 1920s. While researching how organs were controlled by the brain and functioned, scientists and developed the basic techniques by which organ transplants are conducted today, yet hearing about how this duo not only kept the hearts and whole heads of dogs alive after they had been separated from their corresponding bodies, but also created two-headed animals and very nearly reanimated a dead human suggests these scientists may have been willing to push the boundaries of science a bit too far in the name of progress. What’s more shocking perhaps is that even though the former Soviet Union has released some files relating to these experiments, it’s unlikely that anyone will ever really know how far these experiments went. After viewing some of the actual film footage seen here (which includes images of a heart beating independently of its body, one dog’s head being kept alive in a metal bowl and another animal having to fight off the snapping jaws of a second head that’s been grafted onto its neck), I’m not sure anyone would really want to uncover the true extent of these experiments even if the knowledge gained has proven to be invaluable.

WARNING: GRAPHIC! Footage of dog head grafting experiments.

From here, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain goes through an intriguing, if fairly typical collection of segments and stories, some of which seem more outrageous then others. A viewer hears about the legend of the , a subterranean creature who’s said to spit venom and be able to conduct electricity and delves into the legend of the so-called “” which exists in the remote Siberian forest. This plot of barren land apparently causes death and misery to anyone who ventures near it, leading scientists to debate its true nature as the site of a possible underground fire or maybe even the location where meteoric debris has settled. A from the Caucasus Mountains in which a group of mountaineers was severely burned by an unknown ball of light is investigated, as well as a in which a young medical student attacked fourteen women, killing four. In the wake of the attacks, it was speculated that the man was possessed by a demonic spirit called a , a being which appears to have been at least partially responsible for the modern idea of the vampire. It’s almost expected that a program of this nature at least briefly focus on some sort of Bigfoot story, and this is provided in the form of an examination of the Russian Wildman. The documentary concludes with a substantial inquiry into the fascinating and enigmatic in which nine mountaineers were killed under mysterious circumstances while skiing in the remote Russian wilderness in 1959.


Remains of one of the Dyatlov expedition members. Half the mountaineers died from incredibly traumatic injuries which, according to official government reports, were caused by “a compelling natural force.”

Along with a steady narration provided by Eric Myers, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain is told largely through interviews with various researchers and investigators and occasionally, the actual people involved first-hand in the stories. Throughout the program, we have a number of well-handled recreations of the situations discussed which hammer home the subjects the talking heads are discussing. I think one of the best things about the program (as mentioned) was its use of sometimes gruesome and disturbing archival film footage and photographs. Some of the segments here are largely recounted through dialogue, but there has been an obvious effort made to add credibility to the eyewitness accounts and people making them whenever possible. Keeping in mind the undeniably sketchy evidence usually presented in these types of shows, I’d have to say that Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain does a fine job of honestly presenting its information. I also appreciated that the program doesn’t automatically go for the jugular and force the viewer to buy into some very outlandish explanation for what’s occurring in these stories. The program for instance proposes that the mysterious ball of light was actually the incredibly rare meteorological phenomenon known as ball lightning, which actually seems plausible in this circumstance, and the Dyatlov incident segment focuses on the notion that a top-secret parachute mine test caused the deaths of the mountaineers. Generally speaking and as might be expected, this documentary doesn’t come up with any real answers, leaving it up to the viewer to make up his own mind with regard to these cases. I thought this sense of ambiguity was welcome when the vast majority of crypto-reality TV shows jump to wild conclusions in five minutes or less.

artists' rendering
Artist’s rendering of the Mongolian Death Worm.

Even if it takes this program less that twenty minutes to conveniently introduce Idaho State University professor Dr. Jeff Meldrum (who shows up in virtually every Bigfoot-related documentary to explain that yes, there is a possibility that previously unknown creatures do exist in the world – just in case anyone needed that point reinforced) as the obligatory “voice of reason” to add some sort of scientific seal of approval for what’s being proposed here, Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain is easily a more level-headed and ultimately better program than dozens of vaguely similar shows that have turned up in the last couple years. Compared to outright fabrications like the Russian Yeti, Megalodon, or Wrath of Submarine which choked viewers with phoniness, this one at least attempts to remain neutral and objective, simply presenting information in much the same manner as a program like Unsolved Mysteries. For that alone, it deserves commendation in an era where sensationalism goes a long way in making a program stand out from the crowd. Monsters Behind the Iron Curtain obviously wouldn’t be counted among the greatest documentaries of our time, but it’s well-done for what it is and should please viewers interested in the paranormal. Recommended.

dog

Snip, Snip, Snip

 

Gilmour® Ltd, a division of Robert Bosch Tool Company  Anvil Hand Pruners.

 

1

(5/5)

Pros: readily available, cost under $20, good sturdy tool, easy to use

Cons: none noted

Gilmour® Ltd, a division of Robert Bosch Tool Company offers a wide range of garden supplies including  short handled, handy anvil and by pass pruners.

This is the time of year when the long handle and shorter hand pruners are getting a work out as I work to ready our gardens for the winter. I like both anvil and by pass blades, each has its own job and each have a place in my tool bucket.

I especially like the Lifetime Replacement Policy provided by Gilmour: A Gilmour® product will provide complete satisfaction for the life of the product or it will be replaced free of charge (Industrial and Commercial uses are excluded.) Look for the seal on most Gilmour products.

This useful  8 inch, Gearlever ™, pruner is dandy for removing dry, hard to cut wood. Gilmour offers a range of nearly 20 pruners including by pass, anvil, long and short handle, garden scissors, home and commercial use, basic, mid-size and large as well as traditional models. This review is offered for the traditional short handled, anvil pruner having ¾ inch cutting diameter, cushioned grips, plastic lever lock and adjustable tension. Hardened, tempered non-stick steel blades are precision ground; brass anvil is replaceable.

The Gearlever cutting action provides twice the robustness of conventional tools, cutting diameter is ¾ inch. Anvil pruners sever using compression along with a somewhat chopping effort as opposed to the more scissors type motion of the bypass pruners. Anvil pruners are designed for chiseling through more sizeable, woody shoots and branches as opposed to the less substantial stems presented by flowering cultivars. Because the blade does not tend to slide off a branch once the device blade has bitten into the cane; gardener’s hand is shielded.  Anvil blades can be expected to crush stalks or mangle the canes rather than producing the sliced by pass blade cut.

I find the plastic lever lock is something even my arthritic fingers can manipulate with little difficulty.

A good bit of my pruning is one into green wood, my by-pass pruner is used for those branches, however the past two winters have been especially cold, icy and miserable. As a result I am seeing more, hard, dead wood appearing especially in my crepe myrtle. Unlike Rose of Sharon branches, Crepe myrtle canes tend to be particularly hard when dead.

The by-pass long handle or short handle pruners are not up to the job, and were not meant to be. Anvil pruners are actually designed to cut away the hard dry dead canes.

A semi lightweight, robust tool having sharp, rust thwarting stainless steel blades, is a real plus as I work in the garden. I find the strong anvil design having precision-ground stainless steel blade retains the sharp edge rarely, if ever, needs sharpening, is excellent for removing dead growth during pruning episodes and is easy for my arthritic hands to use without becoming achey and tired. I enjoy gardening and have no intention to stop simply because the hands are becoming gnarly, bent and feel repetitive action more than in years past.

Since this implement is an anvil pruner it can be expected to stay in place without slippage as I am cutting out that dead, hard woody material. Due to the arthritis in my hands weight of hand tools is most important as I ponder a new gardening gizmo.  I am more able to manipulate the shorter handle of the smaller hand tools than the longer handled pruners I also have. I do reach for the longer tools now and then, but have learned to improvise and rely on whole body for leverage rather than trying to simply grab the handles whack and cut. I am petite, arthritis reduces the strength in hands and shoulders, so longer handles are gripped with my right hand while the left handle is pressed against my side and pressure exerted both with arm and with body. If all fails to remove the large, dead branches then Husband is asked to intervene. However, I enjoy the challenge and the gardening including the occasional bruise or scrape on arms as rough branches snag.

While many tools are designed particularly for the right or left handed user I find the handles provided with this particular pruner can likely be used with either the right or left hand. I am right handed, however, there are times when it is easier to move the pruner to the left hand as I am whacking into tightly grouped branches, I am

Unlike many pruners this Gilmour pruner does not have a hang hole molded into the handle, not a problem, I do not hang small hand garden tools. I keep mine in a bucket. At the end of a work session I spritz blades and opening close mechanism with WD40 and put the tool into the bucket. I find tools cleaned and oiled at end of work sessions tend to last longer and do not become difficult to open or close. Note: to lessen danger of cuts to hands, care should be taken if wiping the blades clean at end of pruning period is undertaken.

Because the cutting blade is quite sharp; I keep the clip closed when the pruner is not in use.

Span across handles is not quite 4 inches, and is easily held and manipulated by my hand despite the arthritis. Tools have broader span do cause me some problem if I have a longer work session planned. My hand are small and arthritic.   While I do not experience a lot of crippling yet in time I may have to say goodbye to these pruners and move to others my hands can manipulate more easily as the arthritis continues to progress.

From spring into summer I tend to do a good bit of continuing pruning of living wood as I shape and thin crepe myrtle, rose bushes, and Rose of Sharon, as well as shearing of minor branches found at base of various of shade trees in the yard adjacent our house. My anvil blade pruners are used more for fall into autumn, end of season, pruning and shaping.

By tradition, pruners tend to be offered as one of three fundamental types including by pass, anvil and rachet; each has a place in the tool bucket.

Cutting blades of anvil pruners tend to be heftier than is found with those of the bypass pruners; the anvil cutting blade, sharpened on both sides thumps straight down against the anvil. The flat lower edge is designed to separate the branch from the body of the bush or tree being pruned.  Slashes made by anvil pruners are not as tidy and will not mend as rapidly as cuts made by a bypass blade should green wood be pruned back.

—————————

I like to know something of the companies from which I purchase goods. Internet search including noting the Gilmour web site indicates:

From the Gilmour webpage:  The plant that makes “the last hose you’ll ever buy” was a much different business when it was founded in 1947. Although they were plastic, the products were injection-molded parts for everything from can opener housings to pantyhose containers and car parts.

Gilmour is an innovative developer and manufacturer of four full lines of American-made lawn and garden products. Focused on the gardener’s needs, the company creates tools that are efficient, effective, comfortable and easy to use.

Watering changed forever in 1949 when Robert Gilmour began Gilmour Manufacturing Company and introduced the first pistol grip nozzle. A new owner would continue the focus on quality and innovation. With a focus on garden hoses, the company set the standard for quality with the introduction of its patented Flexogen hose. Gilmour now is headquartered in Somerset, Pennsylvania, home of the original Gilmour plant, with additional manufacturing in Excelsior Springs, Missouri.

With a rich history of gardening innovation, Gilmour constantly challenges itself to meet the needs of gardeners for today and tomorrow.

TRADEMARK NOTICE All-Seasons, Dial-A-Mix, Flexate, Flexogen, Foamaster, Full-Flo, Gilmour, Grime Blaster, Handi-Sand Blaster, Pattern Master, Perfect Cover, Select-A-Spray, Snap-Cut, Spray Doc, Super 75, Trim-EZ, and Water Weeper are registered trademarks of the Gilmour Group. Easy Reach, Flow Guard Plus, Gearlever, and WoodMaster are trademarks of the Gilmour Group. Gilmour is now part of Robert Bosch Tool Company.

Gilmour Group

P.O. Box 838  492 Drum Ave  Somerset, PA 15501

Robert Bosch Tool Corp.

One Sprinkler Lane Peoria, IL 61615
Gilmour Ltd.

6975 Creditview Road, Unit #3

Mississauga, Ontario Canada L5N 8E9

The True Story of The Amityville Horror Revealed! HIGH HOPES: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR MURDERS

HIGH HOPES: THE AMITYVILLE HORROR MURDERS on Reelz Channel

(3.5/5)

Pros: A Comprehensive examination of a fascinating murder case; doesn’t get caught up in the ghost story

Cons: Awkward in the way the film is constructed; seems a bit like a self-serving project; clumsy reenactments

Just in time for Halloween comes a 90-minute (two hour with commercials) documentary on the Reelz Channel that’s all about America’s most infamous haunted house at . Contrary to what one might expect from a program of this nature showing up towards the end of October however, the 2014 doc High Hopes: The Amityville Horror Murders focuses not on the case relating to reported supernatural activity occurring on the property, but rather on the brutal crime that took place in the house in 1974. During that period, the iconic home with upper windows that resemble eyes was owned by the DeFeo family, which was made up of father Ron Sr., mother Louise and their five children: Dawn, Allison, Marc, and John Matthew. On November 12, 1974 and following years of mistreatment and abuse at the hands of his father (a man who reportedly had ties to the Mafia), 23-year old Butch entered the home and proceeded to kill every other member of his family with a .35 caliber rifle.

iconic house
The now-iconic 112 Ocean Avenue property.

The crimes earned Butch six consecutive life sentences upon conviction, but the typical stories told about the “” usually only start at that juncture. Writer/director Ryan Katzenbach’s High Hopes documentary, to its credit, operates for its entire run time as a sort of investigative report about the DeFeo murders, examining in detail various aspects of the case. Butch DeFeo over the years has offered up numerous conflicting explanations of what happened on the night his entire family was murdered, making it almost impossible to find the real truth at the bottom of the fabrications. It’s also increasingly difficult to make sense of the case due to the sensationalism caused by the fact that in the years following the murders, George and Kathy Lutz who had purchased the property, claimed that the house was haunted, leading to a best-selling book and a still-ongoing successful horror film . Katzenbach manages to cut through the hype and examine the crime itself, using the whole “haunted house” angle as merely a sidenote to a more serious and unfortunate story.

alleged ghost
Alleged ghost spotted during one investigation of the former DeFeo house.

The documentary begins with a sort of crash course history of all things Amityville Horror related, going over the basics of the criminal case, examining the history of the so-called haunting, and introducing the idea that the Amityville case has become more a marketing device than anything else. Following this introduction, Katzenbach begins a study of all the details in the murder case, starting with the rather startling history of the DeFeo family. Examining alleged Mafia ties and money laundering as well as the tales about how abusive Ron Sr. was to the rest of his family, Katzenbach paints a vivid picture of the situation leading up to the murders. While it’s difficult to feel any sort of sympathy towards Butch DeFeo (who admits in an in-camera interview during which he lacks any semblance of remorse, that he’s basically a manipulator and a liar), it is pretty easy to see a potential set of circumstances that led him down the path to murder his family. Aside from the abuse committed by a father who claimed to have pseudo-religious experiences in between bouts of extreme violence towards his own wife and kids, Butch was also by the time he was in his early twenties abusing drugs and alcohol quite heavily, leading him to increasingly unpredictable behavior.

crime scene photo
Ron Sr. and Louise DeFeo dead in bed.

By the time the murders are recounted in extraordinary detail based on one possible scenario of how they were committed, High Hopes heads into its money section, presenting a case of how prosecutors looking to land a quick conviction bungled up several aspects of the original case. In this manner, the documentary doesn’t play all that differently from a film like West of Memphis, which presented the frankly sickening story of how three outcast teens were (in my opinion, wrongly) . Writer/director Katzenbach obviously relishes the chance to present his own perspective on the criminal case relating to the prosecution of “Butch” DeFeo, and it’s probably during this section in which his film presents its best material and arguments. It seems like most crime films anymore have to have some sort of “miscarriage of justice” section just to seem legit, but examining the information provided here from a logical standpoint does seem to at least suggest that the police, prosecutors and judges had it out for Butch DeFeo from the start.

butch defeo
Butch DeFeo has invented numerous stories relating to the murders in the decades since his arrest. The documentary comes to its own conclusion, but is it actually the answer?

At this juncture, I should point out that from what I can tell, High Hopes was produced essentially by combining three short documentaries about the Amityville case that Katzenbach can been working on into one, longer and more comprehensive work. I say this because at a certain point, High Hopes really feels like its more or less abandons everything that it had been working towards and heads in an entirely different direction. Around the three-quarter mark, Katzenbach jettisons his previous arguments about how Butch DeFeo committed the murders with the aid of several accomplices and presents a “this is how it really happened” finale that makes a case for him doing the deed by himself. I can almost believe that this material was culled from the third and last short film since the way in which the feature documentary transitions into this material is very awkward and almost baffling: it’s not the best way to make a coherent, well-developed film, but I suppose it gets the job done. That said, it took me a second to realize that Katzenbach had essentially doubled back on himself and just assumed his viewer would be able to follow his zig-zagging train of thought, though the average TV viewer might not even notice the change in perspective and just “roll with the flow.”

amityville horror movie
Admittedly, the original Amityville Horror movie is pretty creepy…but still “Jody, the demon pig??”

It was also around this point when I made a pretty telling observation about the documentary. Though the film is narrated by well-known actor Ed Asner, the primary interview subject throughout the production is none other than director Katzenbach himself, who basically sits there and explains to the viewer how everything in the Amityville murder case went down. On one hand, it’s not totally unprecedented for a director to include himself in his own documentary film: many documentary filmmakers almost exclusively focus on their own journey to the truth as it were (Michael Moore comes to mind). In the case of High Hopes however, I really got the idea that this documentary as a whole was more or less a self-serving project (looking at reveals that virtually all his credits are programs relating to the Amityville murders – the guy seems more than a bit obsessed). This becomes especially apparent when, in the documentary’s final segment, Katzenbach himself conducts an investigation of the canal system that exists immediately behind the DeFeo home on Ocean Avenue in an attempt to find the long-missing second murder weapon. It really seems like the writer/director is pushing himself as a sort of criminal investigator and researcher and one almost gets the idea that Katzenbach fashions himself as a sort of neo Truman Capote in terms of how he’s represented in the film. When the discovery of a firearm at the bottom of the canal leads to an apparent, almost obligatory cover-up on the part of the Amityville police department, the positioning of Katzenbach as a sort of avenger for justice is complete, though I wasn’t completely sure I was willing to buy that assertion.

ultimate sad fact
The ultimate sad fact here is that the DeFeo children died horribly.  We shouldn’t forget that, no matter what Hollywood chooses to focus on.

As much as I could be overly critical of this documentary for its apparent ulterior motives, I have to say that High Hopes: The Amityville Horror Murders is pretty interesting for the material that it does present. This is a very comprehensive (though maybe not entirely objective) examination of the DeFeo murders, and the selection of archival video footage, sometimes graphic photos and testimony, as well as the contemporary analysis showcased here does a fine job of telling the story of this case and pleading the writer’s arguments. The film is well-organized for the most part and is generally quite compelling for a viewer. I rather appreciated the fact that this film not only doesn’t focus much attention on the whole “haunted house” angle, but that it actually goes a long way in proving that the whole “Amityville Horror” phenomenon (which began with Jay Anson’s best-selling 1977 novel) was a publicity stunt fabricated in order to make a profit for the folks involved. One would think that calling the haunting out as b.s. wouldn’t have been the best way to go for someone examining this case, but Katzenbach sticks to his guns. On the downside, the reenactments featured throughout the program are undeniably lousy: yes, they compliment the narration quite well, but the acting is awful and they just seem to have been completed very quickly in the most lazy, unimaginative manner possible. In the end, despite a few significant problems, High Hopes is perfect for what it is: an consistently interesting and compelling made-for-television documentary. This wouldn’t hold up against the best documentary films out there, but it accomplishes exactly what it sets out to do. For that fact alone, I’d call it worthwhile.

News Bulletin!

D.o.A.: KILLING BIGFOOT

KILLING BIGFOOT on Destination America

(0.5/5)

Pros: Fairly serious and more credible than the lot of similar programs

Cons: Everything is very familiar and I simply can’t for the life of me condone this show’s message

With the current, rather pathetic wave of cryptozoological (read: monster) related reality television shows coming to an end and a few weeks before the new season of Finding Bigfoot starts, it was only a matter of time – a week to be exact – before the Destination America channel’s next monster show would turn up. Unfortunately, as this genre as a whole has become ever more phony, goofy and unbelievable, Killing Bigfoot, which premiered on Friday, October 24, 2014, appears to be deadly serious – and, in my opinion, completely reprehensible. Following the exploits of another acronym-defined paranormal research group (the GCBRO – Gulf Coast Bigfoot Research Organization; they have their own hats so that means that must be legit), the show attempts not just to find one of the hairy, bipedal apes rumored to exist in the woodlands of Texas, Lousiana, and Arkansas, but kill one of the creatures to prove their existence once and for all.

Yes, as one eyewitness points out with regard to the unknown hominids, “most people just let ‘em be.” Not our gang of trigger-happy bayou folk. That’s just not how they roll…

oh snap

Working off the same pattern that led to shows like Mountain Monsters, Swamp Monsters, Monsters Underground, and Alaska Monsters (UGH! – that has to be one of the worst quartets of shows imaginable), Killing Bigfoot begins with a brief, stylized introduction to the eight-man team the program revolves around, a group of “vets, ex-cops, and hardcore woodsmen” who are shown in the opening montage cocking huge shotguns and blowing away paper targets shaped like the (in)famous . Multiple people featured in the show are identified as “snipers,” while a few – including one fella who’s name is given as “Grumpy” – are given the task of “investigator”; hell, I was cracking up imagining that the show existed as a deranged version of Snow White and the Seven Dorks. Mainly, this crew goes about the normal monster investigation routine – interviewing witnesses, looking for proof in the swamps and forests of western Louisiana, and conducting night investigations that tread suspiciously close to looking like what one would find on the typical hunting program since they involve multiple people traipsing through the woods with shotguns at the ready. What’s shocking about the show is that, unlike the increasingly preposterous monster-related shows on Destination America channel, the characters…er people featured in Killing Bigfoot don’t seem to believe they’re part of an ongoing hoax or comedic program. These guys really are trying to kill a Sasquatch.

leave it to texas
Leave it to Texas to declare that it’s legal to kill Bigfoot…

Right there, I’m already on the verge of writing this program off on principle alone. To me, that this group of supposed investigators’ first response when encountering an unknown creature – even one that reportedly is mighty similar in both appearance and behavior to human beings – is to “bag it and tag it,” is disgusting. It’s this kind of pompous, gung-ho attitude that has caused many problems in recent years (read into that what you like), and it’s about the most unscientific, irresponsible thing I’ve ever heard when mentioned in regard to the existence of unknown creatures. Sure, a Sasquatch corpse likely would silence all the critics – but I can’t in any way, shape, or form condone the wanton killing of an unknown creature just to prove its out there. In all likelihood, if these creatures do in fact exist (in which case, their habitat is rapidly decreasing due to human population expansion), they’re incredibly rare and by eliminating a breeding member of their population, the survival of the species as a whole is potentially put in jeopardy. All one has to do is examine the history of the , or to see what effect the kind of mentality put forth in this show can have on the animal kingdom.

I know harry, I know
I know Harry…I know.

By autumn 2014, television producers are old pros at making programs of this nature and the ultimate flaw of Killing Bigfoot (aside from its careless main theme of shoot first, brag about it later) is that everything here is painfully familiar. Despite that, I have to admit that this program seems substantially more credible than the likes of Mountain Monsters/Swamp Monsters/Alaska Monsters. First of all, the GCBRO members here don’t just conveniently stumble into the path of the creature they’re seeking: though the show’s narrator informs us that there are “signs of the creatures all around,” we never get any proof of Bigfoot’s existence – or a massive, fabricated pursuit of an unknown beast during the episode. This, in my mind, is indicative of the fact that the producers are at least to some extent attempting to make a more factual, level-headed program whose primary goal is not necessarily just to shock a viewer with how asinine the whole production is (as seems to be the case with most other monster shows).

um
Um…just what is that?

Refreshingly, though the show may feature some of the worst sighting reenactments I’ve ever seen, not one character featured in Killing Bigfoot falls in line with being labeled as the goofball, “wild card” or loose cannon (i.e. the , , or character) – this gang seems dead serious, although this has repercussions in the long run. Namely, the show is nowhere near as entertaining as some of its other, unbelievably ludicrous monster-hunting kin. There isn’t a whole lot of camaraderie on display between team member and there aren’t obvious jokes and wisecracks being traded around continuously – hell, if I didn’t know any better, I’d say the GCBRO was made up of people who hate each other even if they are rather civil about it. As might also be expected, the climactic “night hunt” sequence is pretty low-key – not much of anything happens and the show’s conclusion is more or less ambiguous (even with the obligatory cliffhanger).

told ya
Told you – the GCBRO has its own line of stylish caps. It’s gotta be a legit organization, right?        RIGHT???!?

Ever since Mountain Monsters changed the very nature of the crypto-reality show through the use of obvious fabrication, I’ve been wondering if any producers of this type of program would have the balls to make a show in which a monster wasn’t instantly, inexplicably found and chased down. Dumb as it is, watching a group of actors … I mean “monster hunters” … stumble around in the dark chasing phantoms has its appeal on a purely stupid level. As some have pointed out in the commentary on my no star review of Alaska Monsters, watching the show is like looking at a car crash – and the statement is true. I’ve just never quite come to terms with the fact that in order to watch these shows, I had to give up an hour of my life that would be MUCH better served doing something more rewarding and/or worthwhile. Problematic though it is in many, many ways, Killing Bigfoot to its benefit doesn’t automatically assume its viewers are morons looking for supposed entertainment of the lowest, most idiotic variety (and let’s be honest – most of these monster shows are designed for people who would watch just about anything if it was on TV). In a way, I appreciate its serious tone and apparent focus on faux-authenticity – no documentary can ever be entirely objective, but this show seems vastly more reasonable than many similar shows and for that it deserves some measure of credit.

just what we need...
Just what we need: another monster show, and another bunch of gun-happy “investigators” trying to shoot phantoms…and each other.

Try as I might however, I don’t think anything could ever make up for this show’s main premise as it goes out of its way to pursue its own, unreasonable agenda: when you’ve got multiple persons attempting to convince a viewer that Bigfoot should be killed to protect the residents of Louisiana…and GASP! their grandchildren…I could do nothing except shake my head at the screen. This type of blatant and unfounded paranoia-inspiring fear-mongering is dangerous in terms of what affect it has on viewers and one of the main problems if not the main problem with American media. Is it really us humans who should be afraid of Sasquatch, a creature which, if we’re to judge upon reliable evidence, has never posed any serious threat to people? Or is it Sasquatch who should be afraid of us, a species who not only randomly kills virtually every other animal on earth, sometimes purely for sport, but even kills members of its own species for the most fickle reasons imaginable? You be the judge. I’m giving Killing Bigfoot a half a star and I’d urge most viewers to avoid it.

from on .

Sweet Retreat from Sugary Temptations

Werther’s Original Sugar Free Caramel Coffee Candies

Werthers Caramel Coffee small bag

Werthers Caramel Coffee

(5/5)

Pros: Satisfying coffee flavor laced with caramel

Cons: The “laxative effect” of sugar substitutes

It isn’t easy for a diabetic sugar junky, especially as Halloween draws near. In my pre-diabetic days, I would only have to wonder about how to make costumes for the kids without sewing or spending more than a few dollars (a little makeup and a prop or two). As for buying candy for trick-or-treaters, it was a two-bag neighborhood in those days. There were about a dozen or so little ones who’d come while we were putting in our finishing touches, and about the same number of taller deep-voiced trick-or-treaters would show up just as we were getting back with our children. If I needed a sugar fix, there were a few fun-size-whatevers left in the bottom of Bag #2. Because I didn’t have diabetes, candy wasn’t taboo – and my craving for it wasn’t overwhelming. The old saying is true: You want most what you can’t have.

Sometimes, you can have what you want. Werther’s Original Sugar Free Candies taste like their regular candy line. Our son was visiting us and kept dipping into my Caramel Coffee flavored Werther’s without a clue that they’re sugar free. The coffee flavor is light and lets the caramel flavor blend in at will. The texture is smooth and buttery right down to the end. This is a far cry from the old days of sugar free candy that used to taste like chocolate covered mothballs.

The active sweetener is acesulfame-K, a form of sugar alcohol that might have a laxative effect if you overdo the candy. If you haven’t had anything with this type of sweetener before, it’s a good idea to have only one or two pieces at first. If you’re sensitive, it won’t take much to cause trouble. However, over time, the effect isn’t quite that strong.

The other ingredients are: isomalt, cream, butter, artificial flavoring, salt, caramel color, coffee extract, emulsifier, and soy lecithin. For those with food allergies, Werther’s Original Sugar Free Caramel Coffee Candies contain milk and soybeans.

The nutritional information states that a serving size is five pieces, but it’s rare that someone would eat these hard candies like they were cookies or potato chips. I tend to have one or two over an evening at the computer. Since that’s how I eat them, I thought I would at least try to give you the rest of the nutritional information for each candy instead of five at a time. Each candy has 8 calories, 1/5 gram saturated fat, less than 1 milligram cholesterol, 11 milligrams sodium, and 3 grams carbohydrates.

Each candy is individually wrapped, and a bag contains about a dozen candies. Werther’s Original Sugar Free candies can cost anywhere from $3 to $5 dollars, depending on where you shop.

This Halloween, let the trick-or-treaters have their candy corn, and buy yourself Werther’s Original Sugar Free Caramel Coffee hard candies for those sweet-tooth cravings. If you enjoy variety, add a bag of Werther’s Original Sugar Free Caramel Apple hard candies to the mix. Enjoy!

Nighttime Is My Time by Mary Higgins Clark – suffers from too many flaws

Nighttime Is My Time by Mary Higgins Clark

 

pic3

 

(2/5)

Pros: Started with a reasonable premise

Cons: but suffers from too many flaws

I usually enjoy Mary Higgins Clark’s books, even if they’re not examples of great writing. Normally they are at very least entertaining thrillers.  But Nighttime Is My Time failed to hold my interest.  By the end, I barely cared “who done it”.

The setting was intriguing enough – a 20-year class reunion. A weekend gathering of old classmates.  Some friends, some enemies, everyone bringing their own past demons.  There a small group of people with a shared past experience.  All were unhappy during their childhood.  For various reasons.  Some were “outsiders”, picked on by the other students.  Others had issues at home.  In any case, here it is, 20 years later.  You’d think they’d all be over it by now – risen above their past issues.  But one person is definitely NOT over it.  One person is out for revenge – making his classmates pay for past transgressions.

We get plenty of chapters from the bad guy’s point of view. Thus we understand his motivations, know what he’s up to, and we even learn that he’s committed some atrocious acts of revenge in the past.  Further, we know that he is one of the reunion attendees.  We just don’t know – until the end – which one he is.

That’s the premise, and it wasn’t a bad one. We’ve all known kids who were unhappy for one reason or another.  We knew who the “outsiders” were.  Perhaps we were the outsiders.  So it’s fun to imagine the “outsider” growing up and seeking revenge against those who hurt him in the past.

However, Nighttime Is My Time takes the concept way too far.  It was unrealistic to think that someone would go to the extremes we see in this book.  The ends did not justify the means – not even when viewed through the forgiving lens of a thriller.  In other words, it goes way beyond the pale – making the entire story ho-hum in my opinion.

Further hurting the story was the sheer unlikeability of nearly all of the characters. And believe me, there’s a huge list of characters for us to dislike.  Pretty much all of the reunion-goers.  And a few of the others.  Including an obnoxious kid who fancies himself a photo-journalist.  For the most part, he’s just a pain in the neck butting into everybody’s business.

Then there’s the rampant stupidity. Or, as I call it, the eye-rolling factor.  When you know that you’re in danger, do you take off, by yourself, just because someone calls you and tells you do so?  Or, do you arrange for backup, or at least let someone know where you plan to be and when you plan to be back.

Secondly, when you know you were duped once before by someone pretending to be someone else on the phone, do you fall for it again?  And again?

Lastly, we have our bad guy. He’s pretty clever. His crimes have been pretty much perfect over the years.  No one has ever considered him a suspect in anything.  Yet he feels the need to leave a single clue at every one of his crime scenes.  How those clues didn’t tie back to him in the past is a matter of sheer luck on his part (not to mention incompetence on the part of the authorities).  Yet, he continues this behavior, even knowing that it’s likely to get him in trouble, at some point.

So, as you can tell, I’m not overly fond of Nighttime Is My Time.  Mary Higgins Clark can do better – much better.

 

 

Also by Mary Higgins Clark:

Daddy’s Gone A Hunting

Daddy’s Little Girl

A Fairly Unique but Problematic Unsophisticated RPG for the NES: TIMES OF LORE

TIMES OF LORE for the Nintendo Entertainment System

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(3/5)

Pros: The free-roaming world is impressive and fun to explore

Cons: Graphics; battle system; familiar storyline; difficulty level; relatively short

Set in medieval-like fantasy land of goblins, ghouls, wizards, and dragons, Times of Lore seems less a typical NES-era role-playing game and more an unconventional adventure game. Originally developed by Origin Systems (known for the Ultima series of games) and ported for the NES in 1991 by Toho Co, Ltd. (best known for being responsible for the Godzilla film series and related games), the plot in Times of Lore is pretty typical stuff. The once prosperous kingdom of Albereth has fallen on dark times following the disappearance of the king. Now, the player must choose between three heroes (either a knight, a barbarian, or a valkyrie, all of which are absolutely indistinguishable from one another) tasked with not only uncovering the truth behind the king’s disappearance, but also restoring light to the kingdom by completing a handful of missions and eventually defeating an evil priest. Ho hum. Along the way, the player must traverse a rather large map, questioning townspeople, shop owners, and others to find out clues regarding his tasks while battling various monsters also roaming the countryside.

overhead gameplay
Overhead, main gameplay screen – it becomes quite difficult to distinguish the sprites from the background at times.

For all intents and purposes, Times of Lore plays like a significantly less complicated game of the Dragon Warrior variety. The player’s path through the game is gradually uncovered through conversations with various non-playable characters which reveal certain keywords that can then be inquired about, thereby building up a sort of pool of information (in the use of keyword-driven conversation, the game is somewhat similar to the SNES title Shadowrun). Many times, furthering the story requires a player to journey from one town to another in search of specific citizens to question and arguably the most fun thing to do in this game is simply exploring the vast world in which the game takes place. Even if Lore begins at a pretty familiar starting point however, this game has plenty of odd quirks about it that make it fairly unique in the lineup of 8-bit RPG’s.

world map in use
The world map in use here is vast with a plethora of areas to explore.

For one, the player can freely roam throughout the map (which is seen throughout the game from an overhead perspective) from the start of the game and in real time. The real-time gameplay means that there aren’t glorified battle sequences here: fights occur in a rather low-key manner when a player stumbles across nearby enemies on the map and are accomplished primarily through button-mashing not strategy. Since enemies can be spotted in advance, it’s almost possible to avoid most battles by simply steering clear of the sprites. It’s also worth noting that there are precious few cut scenes or loading screens in this game. This makes for a somewhat odd RPG experience – towns merely show up on the overworld map without the game drawing attention to them. I rather liked that the world seemed very lived in (at least as well as could be achieved on the NES) since townspeople simply wander around the countryside going about their daily activities and the fact that the player really can go anywhere and do anything he wants to at any point during the game is a definite bonus, but this sense of freedom does lead to a few problems.

chitchat
Chit chatting with townspeople is the only way to progress through the story and game.

One of the main things I noticed about this game is that it’s actually rather difficult to figure out one’s course of action throughout the game – before I discovered online “how-to” guides, the only way to get through the game (or at least try to) was literally to stumble around the map and advance the story simply by covering every base through the process of elimination. This of course was frustrating and often fruitless – it seems to me that the game developers just mishandled the manner in which the story plays out and is revealed to the player. Questioning various townspeople and other non-playable characters encountered throughout the map is the only way the unraveling story is progressed, but individual dialogue passages that reveal vital information can often be skipped entirely – if one isn’t really paying attention during key moments, he’ll likely have no clue how to proceed through the game – or know why the hell he’s doing one thing or another. Luckily, the game developers have included a sound effect to let one know when something important is said to the character (generally, sound in the game and the music is OK if repetitive), but the whole of the “script” as it were for this game is still unnecessarily complex and convoluted. I really doubt that kids in 1991 would have been able to make any sense of it.

sense
Hell, for as much sense as this story would have made to kids circa 1991, it may as well have looked like this.

Another issue with the game is the graphics. Despite the fact that the map itself is impressive in terms of its scale and detail, the color palette used was poorly designed. This becomes especially noticeable when one realizes that some enemies drop items (gold, scrolls, potions, etc, the vast majority of which seem mostly worthless) that can be picked up and used by the player. These objects are often virtually impossible to spot on the backgrounds: I often found myself doubling back into areas I had already covered for the sole purpose of finding out if enemies I had defeated had dropped something. Furthermore, even though the NES controller only has four buttons on it, the controls in this game are incredibly frustrating. Essentially, one of the two red buttons (“B”) brings up the status menu which allows for items to be picked up or used and conversations to be initiated and the other button (“A”) attacks. I can’t tell you how many times I accidentally attacked a friendly non-playable character simply because the control system in the game doesn’t make much sense (for instance, the A button has to be used to continue dialogue passages, but then will instantly attack when the status menu is closed). To some extent, the programmers have mitigated the damage caused by accidental attacks (if the player leaves the area and comes back later, the non-playable characters will have returned and/or won’t act in a hostile manner). Still, it seems there are many concessions made on the part of the programmers for problems that simply shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place for a finished game.

graphically unimpressive
Times of Lore is graphically unimpressive to the point of being ugly to look at.

By far the biggest problem with here is the sense of difficulty present. Initially, Times of Lore seems unbelievably difficult. This problem is made worse by the fact that the player’s life is indicated onscreen by an image of a candle: when the candle burns low, the player is nearing death. Unfortunately, there’s no real gauge for how many hit points the player is losing at any point, so it’s very easy to be overwhelmed quickly and killed – especially by swarms of enemies. Additionally, the player’s character at the start of the game moves incredibly slowly onscreen and has massive issues with regard to turning and facing another direction (essentially, after moving in a certain direction, the onscreen character will continue to face that way for a few seconds after his direction has changed). This makes attacking groups of enemies particularly annoying, and a player really has to get acclimated with the eccentricities of this game in order have any amount of success getting through it.

menu-driven commands
Menu-driven commands wind up defeating all the serious enemies in the game. And the ending? A major disappointment.

All that said, at a certain point in the game, Times of Lore becomes so ridiculously easy that it poses virtually no challenge to a player at all. There are no experience points to gain during the course of the game and precious few items to pick up, yet when a player purchases the boots (which allow for much faster and relatively easier travel on the ground), he can successfully avoid almost every single instance of combat in the game from that point onward by avoiding and outrunning enemies. Making matters worse is the fact that there are no “boss” type battles in this game at all: every one of the big, fearsome enemies is defeated through use of a particular item and none require the player to defeat them in combat. At a certain point, then, Times of Lore becomes more or less a cakewalk since there’s minimal challenge in completing the game. This makes the game’s finish (which is painfully mediocre to begin with) seem all the more disappointing. Finally, I should point out that this game is very short in comparison to other NES-era RPGs. If a player knew what he was doing (and/or had access to a walkthrough or guide), I bet he could finish this game up in an hour or two – a significantly less time than it takes to get through a more substantial RPG from this era.

sheesh
Even the game over screen is lousy…

Considering the amount of glaring problems in this game, it might come as a shock that I still rated it three stars. Try as I might to hate Times of Lore, the game is fun even if it plays like a very lite RPG that’s no match for the likes of Legend of Zelda or Final Fantasy. This game has a metric ton of problems associated with it and looks pretty awful in terms of its graphics, yet I have to give the developers credit for making a game that was a bit different from just about every other RPG title for the NES. Not everyone would have the same opinion I do (hell, I could see many gamers becoming incredibly frustrated with this title in a very short period of time), and I’m not sure the payoff is worth the effort and frustration needed to play through this thing, but fans of old-school role-playing games might appreciate what the title does have to offer. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch or even one of the better games for the system, but Times of Lore certainly is an interesting, offbeat little title that I’d give a moderate recommendation to.

Gameplay Demonstration: