Thursday, 23 March 2017

POP! Movies -- Beetlejuice

I’m no big fan of Tim Burton. Or perhaps more accurately, I’m no big fan of the cult that’s been spawned centred around his works. But with that caveat, I do like several of his movies – Beetlejuice perhaps most of all.

I watched plenty of the Beetlejuice animated series as a kid – and of course, recall virtually nothing about it – but I had never actually seen the film until about four years ago. For whatever reason I was up late and it came onto TV as the late night movie, so then was as good a time as any.  

It’s a weird and dark film, though its heavy German Expressionist influences are mostly played for comedy rather than “true” horror. It contains many of the elements that have since become Burton clichés, though they feel remarkably fresh here; crude but effective Claymation-inspired designs, black and white stripes, weird gothy characters and a fascination with the morbid. I can’t imagine Alec Baldwin or Geena Davis starring in anything like it now, though of course for Winona Ryder it would help set the tone for her subsequent career.

Now, for convenience’s sake I’m going to refer to the film as Beetlejuice and the character as “Betelgeuse” – accurate to the movie, but not always how we tend to refer to him in the common parlance.  

Betelgeuse is quite well-sculpted, though I don’t think the expression on the face quite captures the signature smirk he displays through much of the movie. He’s recognisably the character, but definitely has shades of the Joker in the too – which is fitting in its own way, given Tim Burton’s role in launching the Batman film franchise in 1989. Paint is okay by Funko’s standards at the time, but would be better if he was released today. Check the stripes on his suit, the eyes, the teeth and the hairline. Some slop is forgivable around the hairline given that kind of fungus thing he has going on all over his face and suit, but in the other areas it looks much more overt.    

Like Spikewho got reviewed yesterday, there is a Glow Chase version of Betelgeuse. His eyes are also painted with the swirly pattern that appears on the box. It’s a good look, but as with most of his Glow Chase contemporaries, he sells for considerably more than I would care to pay.  

Betelgeuse is a solid if not quite spectacular POP. Sadly, we’ve never received any of the supporting characters from Beetlejuice in POP form*. There was a Hot Topic exclusive of Betelgeuse in a different outfit last year, I can’t imagine that we’re going to see anyone else in a hurry. It’s a shame really, because the whole film is filled with freakish and memorable designs that seem made for POP format – and if nothing else, you would have thought Funko would pump out a Lydia Deetz. I can only assume it has to do with licensing costs; Tim Burton is a huge director these days, but Beetlejuice remains something of a cult film; it’s never generated a fraction of the merchandise that accompanied A Nightmare Before Christmas. The cost-to-profit ratio may simply be too high.      

*Though there have been a few Mystery Minis

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

POP! Movies – Stripe (Gremlins)

Gremlins, hey? A movie that, along with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, helped get the entire American movie ratings system adjusted. Why? Well, the movie’s initial marketing may have *cough* downplayed *cough* those horror elements in favour of the film’s cutesy mascot, Gizmo – a face that launched at least a thousand plush toys.  

If you’ve seen Gremlins yourself, you can probably see where this is going; basically, a lot of parents found themselves with traumatised kids post-viewing, having gone in totally unprepared for the scenes of animal abuse, microwaved Gremlins and murder, among other standard horror tropes. I’m of the opinion that kids can often bounce back from upsetting things relatively easily, but I can definitely see why some of the public were pissed off at the sleight-of-hand. I remember my mother expressing similar sentiments in the 1990s when she took me to Jurassic Park, which had a similar mix of kid-oriented marketing vs borderline horror film content.  

Believe it or not, I didn’t actually see Gremlins myself until just a few weeks ago. I was off work sick and about as high as the international space station on cold & flu meds – so naturally it was time to watch a movie or two. Verdict? It’s pretty rad, and I wish I’d watched it years ago. That skeletal version of Stripe at the end? One of the best jumpscares I’ve seen in quite a while. Now to watch the sequel!  

This being a relatively early entry in the POP! Movies line, you’d be guessing that the paint is on the sloppy side. And you’d be right; the apps are all where they should be, but there’s plenty of flubbed lines or missed spots. It’s by no means their worst work, but they’ve come quite a way in the last 5-6 years. The sculpt is particularly cool; these days I would suspect it would be executed in quite a different fashion, and not necessarily as well. Before around 2013 or 2014, POPs were much more heavily stylised, and I don’t think that was a bad thing; not all of them are winners, but they definitely had their own feel. Though the overall standard of sculpting and paint has improved in the intervening years, the simplicity of the older figures definitely has its charms too.  

As with most of the early horror-related POPs, Stripe has a Glow Chase version – it looks pretty rad, if not much like the character in the film. But if you’re looking to track one down, you may have a tricky time; it seems to go for big bucks these days, and I have no idea whether it’s still in production or not.

Stripe here is a fun investment for Gremlins fans, and it’s a bit of a shame that we never got more characters beyond Mogwai and Stripe* in POP form. The first film alone has so many cool character designs, and I’m sure they could have got some reuse from this sculpt. That said, Gremlins 3 is allegedly in development at the moment, so we may yet see more of them hit the shelves.  

*Though they did make a bunch of them for their ReAction line

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

POP! Heroes – Catwoman (Legion of Collectors Exclusive)

The world of superhero comics has traditionally been one of black-and-white morality – paragons of virtue contrasting sharply with hand-wringing villains. But their pulp fiction predecessors tended to play it a little more grey; you only need to flick through a handful of Robert E. Howard’s stories to see that. 

But some do harken back to these pulp roots, and few characters exemplify this as well as Catwoman. Once an out-and-out villain, she’s been bordering on hero status for decades now, and even a periodic lover for Batman. She generally acts for the right reasons, even if she’s not always on the right side of the law.  

This costume is her first true Catwoman outfit (though technically the second the character wore), 
harkening all the way back to the 1940s. It’s been revived from time to time, but it’s a stark contrast to her modern catsuit-style outfits. But of all of Catwoman’s costumes, this is actually one of my favourites. though it’s ludicrously impractical for her chosen line of work. The colours are garish and the design would be ludicrously impractical for actual catburgling, but I’ve liked it since I was a kid. We’ll probably get other comic-based Catwoman POPs in the future, but I never would have picked this costume as getting made.    

Paint is adequate, if unspectacular. Obviously you don’t get any choice in picking the one you’d like, but Funko seem to be holding these exclusives to a slightly higher standard than many of their regular releases. The more annoying thing is the glue mark on the back of her head, where the hair has been attached the back of the mask.   

Overall, it’s a solid and distinctive POP. But four boxes into the Legion of Collectors program, and I have to say that I have very mixed feelings about the whole enterprise. The POPs themselves have been quite good, but the supplementary materials have ranged from adequate to garbage, but overall I’ve just found myself with even more unnecessary crap taking up room in my house. So I’ve opted out of the last two (DC Legacy and Superman) …and I’m umming and ahhing about whether I want to opt in for the next one, solely because it’s Wonder Woman and I’m a big fan. This is a great figure for Catwoman fans, but if you decide to track her down then make sure you don’t pay an arm and a leg.

Monday, 20 March 2017

Funko Mystery Minis Horror Classics Series 3: Bruce the Shark (Jaws)

Shockingly, I’ve never seen Jaws, beyond a few snippets. Yeah, I know, I know – I write about horror-related stuff all the time and still haven’t seen one of the big genre pictures. Disgraceful. But fear not, I’ll get to it eventually. 

I read the novel the film is based on, back when I was a kid (probably a little younger than I should have given the novel’s heavy sexual content) and remember being entertained, but not blown away. It reminded me of a proto-Michael Crichton novel; entertaining and heavily plot-driven, but it lacked compelling characters. This is a stark contrast to what I’ve heard and seen of the film, where the characters loom almost as large on the screen as the shark itself.   

One of the many reasons that Jaws has become venerated in the way it is today is because it was one of the very first blockbusters as we understand them today. Sure, there were wildly successful films for decades prior – but believe it or not, there was a time when the idea of a mid-year (Summer for my northern hemisphere cousins) blockbuster was totally foreign. Can you imagine a world like that now? I can’t, myself. Jaws really was quite the groundbreaker.

So to actually move back to the subject of today’s review, this Mystery Mini is a perfectly nice miniature of a shark, if not hugely exciting. The only thing that specifically screams “Jaws” is the gas bottle in its mouth. Put enough of them together and you could make a nice Sharknado too – which won’t be too hard, considering it’s packed at a 1/6 ratio in the case.       

Saturday, 11 March 2017

POP! Movies – Billy the Puppet (Saw)

Year: 2014
Company: Funko

Back in 2004, a little film by the name of Saw was released. It wasn’t particularly original – Se7en was thrown about a lot as a comparison – but it helped bring a bit of edge back to a genre that at the time had been largely been defanged by hordes of Scream imitators like I Know What You Did Last Summer and their ilk. Things again went full circle, though; Saw had numerous sequels and also helped spark a bunch of other similarly themed films and wider industry trends. In this case, that was the “torture porn” era of horror, typified by movies like Hostel.

I was never so keen on the progeny that it spawned, but I did quite enjoy the first Saw film. Even the second had its moments, but by the third I’d pretty much checked out. Maybe I’ll go catch up on all of them one day, but for the time being I’m content to just take a look at this Funko POP of Billy the Puppet.    

Billy is one of the best-known elements from the series, serving as something of a mascot. The pig’s head mask that Jigsaw actually wears in the films never really caught on in the same way, and so there’s a buttload more merchandise for Billy than there actually is for Jigsaw himself. I suppose it’s a little like Pinhead’s situation; originally a supporting character in the first Hellraiser, he eventually became indelibly associated with the franchise as a whole.   

Billy’s design is something I have mixed feelings about. unsettling when he appears in the films, for sure; but he’s always looked a little too My Chemical Romance for me to find him frightening as a He’s static object on his own merits. The clowny face, the red swirls and eyes…I get why people find it unsettling, but to me it feels like it’s trying a little too hard to be edgy.  

Nonetheless, Billy the Puppet is the face of one of the most successful horror franchises of recent years. With the Saw series set to return to screens for the first time since 2010 later this year, it will be interesting to see what role Billy plays in future films.   

There’s one other version of Billy available, which was an SDCC exclusive in 2014 – Billy has blood spatter on his face and hands, and his face and hands glow in the dark. Expect to pay an arm and a leg (ha!) for it if you plan to track it down.  

Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Zombie Flesh Eaters (2015 Green Vinyl)

Zombie Flesh Eaters LP
Label: Death Waltz Recording Co
Year: 2015 (reissue)

Time for one of my rare record reviews!

Heavy metal is my favourite genre of music, but when I’m writing I actually tend to listen to soundtracks or ambient music. Often both, if we’re thinking of Tangerine Dream or Popul Vuh.  
Why? Well, I find them very helpful for setting the tone for whatever it is I’m working on, and if I need to concentrate on particular details, they’re relatively easy to tune out, something that isn’t always possible when listening to 250+ BPM blastbeats.

So today we take a look at one of my favourite horror soundtracks, for one of my favourite horror films – Zombie Flesh Eaters. Direct by Lucio Fulci, Zombie Flesh Eaters was released as a “sequel” to Dawn of the Dead in 1979 under the title of Zombi 2, promptly going on to be hailed as a cult classic and banned in equal measure around the world. I’ve written about Zombie Flesh Eaters much more extensively on other websites (sadly now defunct), and so to cut a long story short, it’s well worth a watch for zombie aficionados. Few films have such bizarre sequences (a zombie and a shark fight) yet still manage to feel oddly grounded. There’s plenty to laugh at if you’re in the mood, but the tone and special effects still manage to disconcert even today – it’s an excellent introduction to the more grindhouse end of horror.  

One of the real standout aspects is the eerie score from Fabio Frizzi – which of course, is why I’m writing this review today. Frizzi is a veteran composer, having worked on soundtracks from the 1970s up until the present, including several films with Lucio Fulci. Here, his work incorporates a stripped-back synth sound, in tandem with voodoo percussion and touches of musique concrète. It makes for quite an eerie and tense effect, with the notable exception being opening track Sequence 1, which is an oddball calypso-style theme, standing in stark contrast to the rest of the score.

But it’s Sequence 6 and Sequence 8 that are the standout tracks. Sequence 6 accompanies the infamous eye-gouging scene, and is apparently based on “A Day in the Life” by the Beatles. But it quickly devolves into nightmarish territory, with weird synth and ear-piercing feedback accompanying the subtly wrong piano riff. The scene itself still makes for unpleasant viewing almost four decades after its release, and I suppose it’s a compliment that it’s almost as unpleasant to listen to on its own, even without the graphic visuals.

Sequence 8 is the movie's title theme. As soon as I first saw the movie – around ten years ago! – and heard those ominous notes I knew that I was in for something special. Recorded in an era before synth became synonymous with sterile, to this day it has the capacity to unsettle me whenever I hear it. Yet it’s an oddly fond sound too, conjuring up memories of past-midnight viewings of cult trash with friends. 
Pls note the background Cheezels
Death Waltz have released this soundtrack several times since 2012, each with slight differences. This is the green vinyl version from 2015, which incorporates a version of the score that was remastered by Frizzi himself in 2014. It includes some liner notes from the cover artist and Frizzi, but it’s not a special edition – though I don’t think Death Waltz issues anything in huge numbers, it was apparently a “regular” edition. The Death Waltz website doesn’t seem to be selling it at the moment, but I don’t think you’ll have huge problems tracking it down from a reseller if you’re keen on scoring yourself a copy. But for completists or those seeking a particular pressing, you can see the full list of releases here.  

This release is not as comprehensive as the 2000 CD from Blackest Heart Media. For that release, tracks were presented in the order they appeared in the movie, along with dialogue snippets, a few remixes and some covers. I guess they were riding that sort of “Tarantino soundtrack” that was quite popular at the time. By comparison, this vinyl version feels a little bare-bones by comparison, but the presentation is definitely of a high standard, and makes for a nice piece on the shelf. I was happy with the price I paid; it’s a relatively obscure film with very little merchandise, so really I’m grateful that it’s available at all!  

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Creatureplica Louisiana Rougarou

So way back at the end of 2014, I interviewed legendary action figure sculptor Jean St Jean about his then-upcoming Creatureplica range of action figures. Centred around various cryptids, I knew this would be a must-buy. Flash forward more than 2 years, and my Louisiana Rougarou has finally arrived!

Despite having read books on the “unexplained” fairly extensively over the years, I have to say I’d never heard of the Rougarou specifically. Presumably a corruption of the French word loup-garou, there are all manner of Cajun and Native American folk tales about the beast. Most of them are simple morality stories, as folklore and fairy tales often tend to be, but it’s an interesting and oft-overlooked piece of werewolf mythology in our era, which tends to be dominated by a more Twilight or Underworld-esque view.

And this boy is magnificent. More Dog Soldiers than Wolfman, this is a HUGE figure; not just because of its height, but also in chunkiness. Designed to fit in with a 7” scale, he’d also work with plenty of 6” lines too. The detailed sculpting on the fur is incredible; it’s obvious that this project is a real labour of love for Jean St Jean, and it’s an excellent showcase of the skills he’s picked up during his decades in the industry.  

Jean St Jean has worked for pretty much everyone, but these days he’s probably best known for his work with Diamond Select. Additionally, this series is distributed by Diamond Select over in the US, so it’s not altogether surprising that the figure adopts a very Universal Monsters Select articulation scheme – fortunately of the more modern variety, rather than the old limited articulation. Here’s the breakdown, from head to toe:

*swivel ears
*hinged jaw
*double barbell head/neck, providing a balljoint-like effect
*balljointed shoulders
*swivel biceps
*hinged elbows
*cut forearms
*hinged wrists
*cut abs
*cut waist
*swivel-hinged hips
*cut thighs
*ratcheted knees
*ratcheted calf
*ratcheted rocker ankles

The ratcheted joints are a particularly good inclusion, given that this guy is big, and would probably topple over without them. The sculpted fur restricts movement a little around the shoulders, but not excessively, and the only joint I actually had a problem with was the right wrist which appears to be a little bit stuck. Though there are other articulation schemes on the market which might have blended with the sculpt slightly better, it’s overall a good compromise and of a much higher standard than many mass-produced figures that I have bought.

Similarly, paint is of a very high standard. No doubt customisers can and will do a lot with it, but as a factory-painted figure it looks excellent on the shelf and also blends nicely with similarly sized lines such as the aforementioned Universal Monsters. The green eyes with white highlights/pupils are also an excellent touch.

"Do you even swamp bro?"
Louie here comes with four accessories – three shirt scraps and a display base. I didn’t think much of the shirt scraps on initial purchase; they’re held on by friction and fall off pretty easily, but now that I have it on display I quite like the look of them. They add a nice little bit of detail, and break up the grey-brown colour scheme without distracting the eye too much.

The display base is particularly good, and will definitely remain part of my display. It’s a swampy, bayou-esque mix of plant life and mud, with three foot pegs to support the Rougarou. Topping it off are a skull and ribcage with shredded shirt; these have excellent detailing, but they do seem a little large, even allowing for the 7” scale. Nonetheless, they evoke eerie and sinister voodoo connotations, which seems entirely appropriate for the figure.

Creatureplica’s figures are somewhat more expensive than their more mainstream Diamond Select counterparts, which is understandable given the lower production runs and (generally) greater articulation. I did have a few difficulties tracking one down; while US and Canadian purchases can apparently be made direct from the site, overseas orders need to be placed via email. I won’t go into all the details, but suffice to say that I’d suggest contacting them via their Facebook page instead.

Nonetheless, now that I have it in hand I’m thrilled with the final product. To be quite honest. I've been a little burnt out on action figures of late. I don't buy many these days; I'm trying to be a little more discerning, and with the sheer number of releases coming out across licenses I like it can be a little fatiguing. It's a first-world complaint if ever there was one, don't get me wrong, but this is the first figure in a long time that I've come across which has made me truly excited about the hobby, rather than "merely" pleased. 

The Louisiana Rougarou is an essential purchase for any werewolf or horror fan, and a shining example of how licenses don’t need to drive a high standard of product in the action figure market. Here’s hoping to getting a series 2 in the near future!