Monsterpalooza: Celebrating scary things and their creators

Monsterpalooza is an amazing celebration of the art of monsters and the
artists who create them. Horror movies and writings serve as the
foundation for this genre of entertainment that branches out into
monster makeup and costumes, movie memorabilia, action figures,
T-shirts, pins, models, sculptures, comic books and graphic novels.

All of these and more were centralized the weekend of April 13-15 at
the Marriott Burbank Hotel and Convention Center, where
Monsterpalooza celebrated its fourth anniversary at this venue.

Because I was only able to attend one of the three days, I chose to
go April 15, drawn mostly by the scheduled Creature Features
presentation centering on 1981’s “An American Werewolf in London.”
Sitting on the panel were director John Landis, actor David Naughton,
and makeup and special effects genius Rick Baker and three of his
crew on that movie: Steve Johnson, Bill Sturgeon and Craig Reardon.

Landis wrote the screenplay to “Werewolf” in Yugoslavia while
serving as a production assistant on”Kelly’s Heroes” in 1969. A few
years after that he met and worked with the then up-and-coming Baker
on “Schlock,” a little movie about a monkey-like monster that falls
in love with a blind girl.

After Landis directed the hit comedies “Animal House” and “The Blue
Brothers,” he finally was given the green light to make “Werewolf.”
He and Baker had been wanting to work on the project for years.

Baker, who grew up in Covina, signed up then young adults Johnson,
Sturgeon, Reardon and others in what would be groundbreaking makeup
and effects, one of the first movies ever to show a man transform into a
werewolf without the use of trick photography. The scene in which the
young American David, played by Naughton, turns into a werewolf, is
explicit and depicts the excruciating changes David’s body undergoes,
and was a landmark in special effects. Although Baker admitted that by
today’s standards the scene seems pedestrian, it was astonishing 30
years ago and netted Baker his first Academy Award.

Baker noted that Landis placed a lot of faith in him, providing him
with the financial necessities to do his magic. It certainly was a
matter of creating as you go. Landis would provide the story boards
and Baker and his crew sculpted models from which to help create the
life-size elements that would be on film. In addition, as Landis
noted, the transforming scene takes place in a lighted room of a flat
where David is staying, and lighting is “unforgiving” when a scene
heavy in special effects is filmed.

Naughton, when asked about his most difficult times on the shooting,
recalled the setup of the transformation scene in which he flips on
his back and a full-body shot is presented, showing his body
expanding. Naughton actually was placed under the floor, with only
his head above the floor, with the rest of his “body” being an
animitronic creation of Baker and his crew. Naughton was in that
position for several hours, but the misery came when mischievous crew
members snuck up on him from below the floor to tickle him. Naughton
also recalled the scene at the zoo when after his first night of
hunting as a werewolf he awakes inside the cage with wolves. Not only
was it cold, being March in London, but Naughton also was without
clothing. He said the wranglers handling the wolves were teenage
girls who tried to assure him “the wolves have been fed.” That seemed
little consolation to the actor.

Landis praised Baker for his ability to adapt to the rapidly
changing technology in special effects, saying Baker quickly became
an expert of designing his creations on computer.

When this presentation was over, I dismissed to the area where
horror movie stars were on hand to sign autographs or pose for photos.
Among the actors were cast members of the original “Fright Night”:
Chris Sarandon, Williams Ragsdale, Amanda Bearse and Jonathan Stark.
Also on hand was veteran actor James Hong from “Big Trouble in Little
China” and “Blade Runner”; and for comedy fans, he can be remembered
as one of the passengers literally bored to death when Ted Stryker
(Robert Hays) goes on long reminisces about his relationship with
Elaine (Julie Hagerty). Also appearing: Jessica Harper, star of
Dario Argento’s “Suspira.”

Surprisingly, a table that featured Eddie Munster himself, Butch
Patrick, was not drawing a lot of visitors. In a side room, the films
of producer, writer and director Joe Hollow, whose productions appeal
more to the hard-core fans of explicitly violent films, was
represented by stars of his movies, Michael Berryman — mainstream
filmgoers may remember him as the mute, bedridden patient in the
mental ward in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — and Brinke
Stevens, who along with Linnea Quigley is an icon in the low-budget
horror and gore realm.

As a fan of the old Universal monster pictures, I gravitated over to
the corner that featured the three undisputed superstars of that era:
Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. and Boris Karloff. Those wonderful actors
have long since left us, but on hand to help us pay tribute were Ron
Chaney, grandson of Lon Jr., and his family; Bela Lugosi Jr. and
Karloff’s daughter Sara. I had a few minutes to chat with Ron, who
recalled that for all the fame his grandfather received, being the
first wolfman, he simply was the nice “Grampy” around the family. As
I heard this, I recalled an anecdote from when Lon Jr., who played
the Frankenstein monster in “The Ghost of Frankenstein” in 1942,
would treat the children on the set to ice cream between takes of
that movie.

There were more than 200 tables of vendors throughout the convention
site, offering just about everything a fan of scary movies would
enjoy — and even opportunities to sit and have makeup artists
convert you into something ghoulish.

For those who did not get their fill of monsters and more, Son of
Monsterpalooza will be held at the Marriott in Burbank on Oct. 26-28
— just in time for Halloween.

“Cabin” winks at the audience
Raise your hand if you have heard of this plot before. Five young
people decide to take a brief vacation to a remote cabin in the
woods. The five cover the gamut of characters one would expect in
this story — the promiscuous woman, the athlete, the party animal
mostly under the influence of mind-altering drugs, the sensitive guy
and the good girl.

Such is the set-up of “The Cabin in the Woods.” But wait a minute.
The brain trust behind this movie include Joss Whedon, who brought
Buffy the Vampire Slayer to the screen and also wrote a few episodes
of “Roseanne,” and Drew Goddard, a sometime collaborator with Whedon
on Buffy and one of the writers of “Lost.” With this duo you know
you’re going to get more than a “Friday the 13th” rip-off.

For one thing, the movie spends a big portion of its opening minutes
on a couple of older guys, Sitterson and Hadley (Richard Jenkins and
Bradley Whitford), who look like they just walked off the NASA
control center set from “Apollo 13.” Engaging in banter about family,
incompetent coworkers and such, they make their way down to an
underground command center that looks straight out of NORAD.

Meanwhile, the five young people rumble into the wilderness in an RV
and stop at a backwoods, rundown gas station that is so ratty it is
an over-the-top parody of such establishments. There they encounter
the typical anti-social, tobacco-spitting gas station owner, Mordecai
(Tom De Zarn), who not only seems to resent these intruders despite
their revenue-producing potential but of course offers the enigmatic
warnings about the dangers of using remote cabins as party central.

How these five people tie in with the two older guys is one of the
aspects of the movie best not revealed, as it would spoil the fun.

The young cast consists of Anna Hutchison as Jules, the “loose”
lady, Chris Hemsworth (pre-Thor) as Curt the jock, Fran Kranz as the
always loaded Marty — who of course gets all the good lines — Jesse
Williams as Holden, the sensitive guy, and Kristen Connolly as Dana,
the good girl.

After the usual initial hours of unabated fun, things begin to slip
for these five people.

But Whedon and Goddard are not going to deliver the usual goods in
this movie. It is, of course, a tongue-in-cheek venture, a la
“Scream” that pokes at the conventions of the modern horror flick.
For good measure there are zombies, a real big draw these days, and
some elements of “The Hunger Games.”

Be warned, however. The gore factor is high. There are some brutal
and explicit death scenes in this movie. Whedon and Goddard will make
you laugh, but also make you cringe. It makes for a grand time for
fans of this genre.

Of the young cast, Connolly and Franz stand out, both becoming
resourceful when it gets really nasty. Jenkins, as usual, delivers as
the everyman, adding a macabre, sinister touch here and playing well
off his colleague Whitford as two guys who probably spend way too
much time together at the office.

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