Horror Conventions

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Everything That Dies Someday Comes Back

It was two years since my last signing at a horror convention: I took some time off to work on my third book, Zontoe, set for release sometime this year. Writing can be a lonely and solitary task; most days I spent hunched over my computer with only the characters I’ve created to keep me company. It was time to rejoin the living (and the occasional undead.) I started the year at Chiller Theatre in Parsippany, New Jersey. It was my first time at Chiller, a bi-annual convention that attracts some big names and bigger crowds.

I always place a candy bowl, shaped like a skull, at the edge of my table during book signings. Hershey’s, in their infinite wisdom, discontinued the brand of Bliss chocolates I offer to visitors at my booth. The white chocolate meltaways were delicious and always garnered rave reviews; here’s hoping the Hershey’s Bliss line comes back from the dead.

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I meet many celebrities during these horror conventions, people whose work I admired and grew up on, but my most memorable encounter was with the filmmakers behind the Subspecies movies.

The Subspecies tetralogy is my favorite vampire franchise and produced by Full Moon Pictures, a direct-to-video company most popular during the early and mid-nineties. During the convention, I picked up a copy of It Came From The Video Aisle, a comprehensive history of Full Moon’s twisted oeuvre. The book took me back to the days when I was just a kid living life one VHS tape at a time and executive-producer Charles Band was the demented tour guide who introduced me to a world of phantasmagoric delights.

Full Moon’s primary rival was Troma Studios. Apart from The Toxic Avenger series, I dismissed Troma’s output as sleazy and juvenile. John Waters once said there’s a difference between “good, bad taste” and “bad, bad taste.” Troma’s productions fall in the latter category.

Besides Subspecies, Full Moon’s most famous contribution to franchise horror was the Puppet Master series. A few years ago, when I lived in Pennsylvania, there was a grocery store around the corner from my apartment, and I shopped there whenever I needed some last minute foodstuffs. Positioned near the checkout lane, among the impulse buys, was a bin filled with miscellaneous DVDs. I picked up the Puppet Master box set, featuring nine movies for only $4.95. That night while cooking my favorite dinner (fried chicken breaded with cornflake crumbs, stuffing, and creamy mashed potatoes) and enjoying a bottle or two of red wine, I rewatched the series and live-tweeted my experience. Some of the sequels I hadn’t seen since childhood but was eager to find out how many horrors of puppet-related horror I could withstand in a single sitting. I flashed back to the disastrous night when I caught my kitchen on fire while cooking with grease and watching Fellini’s Casanova; this time; even with alcohol added to the mix, there was nary a cooking mishap.

I was only forty minutes into the first movie before a woman was masturbating in a bubble bath while wearing a diamond tiara – typical Full Moon; besides low-budget chills and thrills, the company regularly featured gratuitous nudity: the cheapest special effect of all. My initial viewing of the original, back when I was still in single digits, was probably my first exposure to a naked female body.My favorite entry in the series, Puppet Master 3, is directed by David DeCoteau. DeCoteau is now infamous for a vast filmography ranging from cheapie family films like A Talking Cat!?! to gay-themed supernatural horror films, but he was once a heavyweight among Full Moon’s stable of directors. The third film, set during the Third Reich, finds Andre Toulan, the titular puppet master, breathing life into an inanimate set of dolls and seeking revenge on the Nazis responsible for his wife’s death.

The Room’s Greg Sestero portrays a young Toulon in the prequel Retro Puppet Master. I met Sestero earlier this year at a screening of Best F(r)iends, the sometimes hilarious and surreal new thriller he made with Tommy Wiseau. There’s a beautiful sequence shot in downtown Vegas around the corner from my apartment. Sestero is among one of the most familiar faces in the entire series; Full Moon usually shied away from casting recognizable talent. 2018 saw a Puppet Master remake, not produced by Full Moon, and hardly worth mentioning.

I made it through most of the film series before falling asleep, and Full Moon‘s official Twitter account retweeted several of my Puppet Master musings. Charles Band has a particular fondness for pint-sized horror, besides the murderous puppets and Subspecies other Full Moon productions include Dollman, Demonic Toys, and the Gingerdead Man. Another popular Full Moon series was Trancers, starring Dollman’s Tim Thompson and a pre-fame Helen Hunt.

Full Moon‘s heyday was when they served as Paramount‘s direct-to-video arm; Subspecies filmed during the production’s company salad days when every home contained a VCR and viewers were desperate for content. The vampire series benefits from shooting in Romania, adding a sense of place and atmosphere not seen since the Werner Herzog remake of Nosferatu. Herzog called it “the voodoo of location” – a higher reality with impact beyond the artifice of studios and sets. Even Subspecies’ opening credit scene, with cast and crew titles superimposed over a train pulling in at a Romanian train station, fills the viewer with a sense of coming dread.

After the first day at Chiller Theatre, at the hotel bar, I met the film’s leading actors: Anders Hove, Denice Duff, and Kevin Spirtas. Anders Hove‘s Radu is my favorite cinematic vampire. He’s grotesque and inhuman, but also amazingly seductive. Neither Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman, or Max Schreck are worthy to wear his fangs. I knew Kevin Spirtas from my first horror convention, Mr. Hush Weekend of Fear, and he’s also the star of Friday the 13th Part 7: The New Blood. Denice Duff, the female protagonist of the Subspecies series, now has a side business selling beauty products, and I purchased some of her wares. Ever since I tried Denice’s face cream, In Your Face, I’ve been carded at every bar I visit.

I had a two-hour long conversation with Ted Nicolaou, the writer, and director behind the Subspecies films. I once worked for an advertising company as a director, writer, and editor of television commercials and was very interested in learning Ted’s filmmaking approach and some technical behind-the-scenes stories from his movies. We covered his entire career, including Ted’s start as the soundman on the Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and marveled at the beautiful new high definition transfer of the Subspecies series available on Blu-ray and Full Moon’s streaming site.

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Ted Nicolaou continued to work at Full Moon with Bad Channels, a film showcasing his talent combining sci-fi horror tropes and witty dialogue; one of my favorite movies, TerrorVision, comes from earlier in his career. TerrorVision is severely underrated and among the most successful horror/comedy films I’ve seen.

The next day, I came across a vendor selling DVDs and Blu-Rays; the majority of his offerings were popular titles from America, Giallo films, or J-horror. A few discs were obvious bootlegs, and I picked up a copy of Freddy’s Nightmares, a short-lived anthology show featuring Freddy Krueger. The eponymous villain acted as a Cryptkeeper-like host and introduced new tales of the macabre every week. Hidden amongst the lurid video nasties, was a bootleg of the musical Hamilton, filmed on Broadway and featuring the original cast. As a huge fan of Hamilton (which combines my disparate love of history and politics with old-school hip-hop) who never had the opportunity to see the show on Broadway, (though I have streamed the soundtrack nearly a thousand times on Spotify) I quickly snatched the precious copy and happily paid for my purchase. I’ve watched many bootlegs in my day, some of sold-out plays or movies still in theaters, so I was familiar with how different boots ranged in quality. Sometimes half the video is dark because the bootlegger has to hide his camera or risk discovery, other times he simply doesn’t know the show or what’s most important to keep in the frame; I’ve even seen some boots that were completely out of focus. Anxious, but maintaining low expectations, I slipped the disc into my hotel room’s DVD player. The Hamilton bootleg turned out great. The cameraman obviously knew the show and when to zoom in and out in order to serve the story and recreate a live theater experience. The video was shot on a consumer camcorder, but the picture and sound quality were above average.

Later in the year, I returned to Cherry Hill for Monster Mania. I arrived at the Crowne Plaza hotel on Thursday night before the convention began and stood behind Bill Mosley at the front desk as we checked into our rooms. I ran into Kane Hodder in the elevator, who I knew from several other horror conventions we both attended and wished each other luck.

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The author and journalist Thomas Wolfe died earlier in the year. He always wore a white suit to his public appearances, and I wear my convention outfits in tribute to him. In the elevator on the way to our rooms, Billy Zane praised my suit; I returned the compliment and told him how much I dug his newsboy cap. I recently rewatched Tales From The Crypt: Demon Knight for the first time in years and was blown away by Zane’s villainous performance. I purchased a life-sized animatronic Crypt Keeper at Chiller and kept him seated at my booth throughout the year; he’s my new business partner.

Two of my good friends, Mat, and Melissa, came down to see me. Mat Giordano is the designer of my book covers. That night, we had dinner across from Robert Englund who was very nice to his fans and chatted with Mat’s young son; Sadly, I cannot say the same for Doug Bradley, who seemed very irritable and inconsiderate toward his admirers. The actors and creators who appear at horror conventions have the best job in the world: they sit behind a table all day and talk to people who idolize them and adore their work. Sure, the days can be long, I understand that firsthand, but there’s certainly no excuse to be rude to a little boy.

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Mat, his son, the Crypt Keeper, and some signed Kane Hodder hockey masks.

Mat, his son, the Crypt Keeper, and some signed Kane Hodder hockey masks.

My booth was across from Severin Films, an excellent DVD company specializing in the release of underground films. I bought beautiful Blu-Ray special editions of Burial Ground, Threads, and The Baby. My other neighbor spent the weekend playing Jim Croce songs; not very horrific (except for his tragic death) but Operator (That’s Not The Way It Feels) may be the saddest and most beautiful song ever written.

I came up with an idea for a short story: The main character is an author at a book signing. He suffers severe anxiety over the poor quality of his signature. He’s envious of other writer’s brash and confident handwriting. Uplifting ending: the author learns to embrace his chicken scratch.

Pennywise’s second favorite book.

Pennywise’s second favorite book.

I purchased some cool hand-embroidered towels from Phantasmagoria Graphics. Their “Hotels In Horror Collections” offer cotton towels featuring logos from the Bates Motel, Camp Crystal Lake, and the Overlook Hotel.

I thought I might be safer using this one for a bubble bath instead of a shower.

I thought I might be safer using this one for a bubble bath instead of a shower.

Property of Camp Crystal Lake towel

Everything dies baby
That’s a fact
But maybe everything that dies
Someday comes back
Put your makeup on
Fix your hair up pretty
And meet me tonight in Atlantic City

Bruce Springsteen’s lyrics ran through my mind as I attended my last convention of 2018: The New Jersey Horror and Film Con, at The Showboat Hotel.

I lived for a few years in Ocean City, only a few miles away from Atlantic City, and once visited The Showboat for a Regina Spektor concert. The hotel is now under new management and currently operating without a gambling license, so the convention took over the casino floor; that was probably for the best, as I’ve been known to spend an inordinate amount of time at the blackjack tables.

The NJ Horror Con placed my booth directly across from the Friday the 13th reunion guests. Harry Manfredini, the man responsible for the series’ famous theme and decades worth of chilling film scores, was one of the nicest people I ever had the pleasure to meet. He bought a copy of Bliss, but I wouldn’t take his money and accepted a signed copy of the Friday the 13th: 3D soundtrack in return. The reworked disco theme featured in part 3 is one of my favorites.

 


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Of the Friday the 13th movies, I owned part 2, 5, 8, and Jason Goes To Hell on VHS. During the days of my youth, pre-Amazon, horrors fans were stuck buying whatever titles your local department store had in stock. A New Beginning was not a store bought tape, but one I recorded from an episode of USA’s Up All Night hosted by Gilbert Godfried. Up All Night edited the movies for broadcast, but the Friday the 13th films screened in theaters weren’t uncut either; in those days, with a more conservative Reagan-influenced MPAA, not much remained of the gory death scenes.

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I have a fondness for parts 5 and 9 despite their widely-regarded distinction as the series nadir. I’ve watched so many sequels of Jason stalking nubile teenagers through the woods; I don’t mind when the sequels try something new. Before I finally donated my VHS collection to a Salvation Army, I rewatched the movies and tried to relive some of my cherished childhood movies: sitting on the living room carpets, eyes glued to the tube television, and watching horrors films I was much too young for;
I remember seeing Jason Goes To Hell in theaters on opening night. I was eight years old and already familiar with the hockey-masked killer, Freddy Krueger, and Michael Myers. The screening was sold out, and people without seats sat in the aisle, blocking the fire exits. The audience hooted, hollered, and screamed at all the right moments. Even now, when I attend a midnight screening of any film, my Jason Goes To Hell experience is what I judge them against; the final shot of the movie when Jason finally goes to hell, and Freddy’s gloved hand reaches up to grab his hockey masks remains the most unexpected and fun moment ever committed to celluloid.

I met actress Dana Delorenzo, star of the recently departed series Ash vs. The Evil Dead.

I met actress Dana Delorenzo, star of the recently departed series Ash vs. The Evil Dead. She’s a wonderful, talented person and I hope she has a long career.

I also ran into legendary porn star Ron Jeremy. He invited me to a raucous party back at his hotel suite, and, needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep that weekend. I overheard one NJ Horror Con guest remark: “If you aren’t extremely hungover by the end of a convention, then you aren’t doing it right.”

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Let me end with a special shoutout to some of my neighbors: Ghost Girl Greetings and Bodycounters. The weekend flew by, and I’m glad a new horror con chose Atlantic City as their home. I’ll return to the convention scene after finishing my next book

Best wishes for the new year.

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