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Dracula’s Daughter (1936) is actually pretty well regarded, compared to most of the other films covered in this series. For its novel approach to the material, its lesbian themes, its unusual antagonist, its Gloria Holden, you name it. And unlike the last couple of titles I wrote about, Dracula’s Daughter is one that, while I have seen it, I hadn’t seen it as recently – or as often – as those flicks that got the MST treatment.

The prologue of this volume very briefly introduces us to two very different concepts. First, the historical Vlad Dracula, as the book calls him. “Dracula was a brave leader,” the authors tell us, “but he was also in love with death.” I think we could all hope for such a pithy summary of our lives five centuries after our demise.

However, again according to Green and Sanford, “Few people cared about Vlad Dracula, except for Bram Stoker.” I feel like there are at least a few Romanians who would probably disagree. Anyway, the book continues, Stoker wrote his famous novel in 1897 and it was “wonderfully scary. Everyone wanted to read it!”

The authors use this as a springboard to explaining their second concept, the idea of the movie sequel – there’s a certain charming naivete in assuming that any child old enough to read this book would be unfamiliar with the idea of a sequel. “How could Universal make another vampire movie and still use Dracula’s name?” the authors wonder. “Some clever writers came up with a good answer. They said, ‘Imagine that Dracula had a daughter!'”

From there, the book moves into the realm of recounting the events of the film. At the time I reread it, I hadn’t seen the movie recently enough to make clear notes about what was different or the same, though I have watched it since, but right away the novelization is nicely more atmospheric and suggestive than our last couple of installments, thanks partly to the more gothic nature of the film itself.

The first few sentences of the first chapter, which is entitled “A Body Vanishes,” describe Carfax Abbey. “Overhead, a pale moon was lost behind heavy clouds. A bat circled above the tall towers of the old house.” This is also embellishment, as the film provides no such establishing shot. The story picks up immediately following the events of Tod Browning’s 1931 film, never mind that Dracula’s Daughter didn’t hit screens until five years later.

Edward Van Sloan is back as Professor Von (as it’s spelled here and in the original film) Helsing, who is in trouble with the law because he’s been found with the corpse of Dracula, and nobody seems to believe him that it was just a vampire he staked. In short order, we meet Dracula’s eponymous daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden). “Some fathers raise their daughters to be artists or writers,” she tells our protagonist, played by Otto Kruger. “My father made me a vampire!”

What makes the line, which is one of the better ones in the book, honestly, particularly interesting is that she never actually says it in the movie. In the film, she simply tells him that she’s Dracula’s daughter and lets him draw his own conclusions as to what that means – which, by then, he has already done.

A much longer essay than this could be written about the film’s themes, and how they were cut to ribbons by the Hays Code. Among these are the parallels between vampirism and mental illness – the suggestion that either Countess Zaleska herself or even Von Helsing could simply be delusional. More striking are how the scenes suggesting a lesbian subtext to Zaleska’s actions were cut, despite that same subtext being used to peddle the film, with taglines like, “Save the women of London from Dracula’s Daughter!”

Instead, I’ll leave you with a bit of background from when Joseph Breen, then head of the Production Code Administration, was asked to look over the script of the scene in which the Countess attacks a young model who has come to pose for her. Breen demanded – his wording not taking the form or “should” or even “must” but “will” – that the implication that the model posed in the nude be cut, and went on to say, “The whole sequence will be treated in such a way as to avoid any suggestion of perverse sexual desire on the part of Marya or of an attempted sexual attack by her upon Lili.”

For seven years now, every October I have gone to a local event called #Nerdoween, hosted by my favorite local theatre, the Screenland Armour, and the fine folks from the Nightmare Junkhead podcast. The gimmick is always the same: one night, three horror movies, all on a pre-chosen theme, but you don’t get to know what you’re going to see until the movies play.

In past years, the themes have included demons, sequels, anthologies, “sleazy sci-fi,” killer nouns, and Satan. This year, to celebrate the fact that movie theatres are kinda, sorta able to be open again a little bit, the theme was movies that take place, well, at the movies.

And I’m gonna warn you, one of the three movies we saw is a film best experienced as cold as humanly possible, and just knowing that it’s included in this list constitutes a spoiler of sorts for it, so I’m not going to say the title. If you follow me on Twitter or Letterboxd you can figure it out, but there’s only so much I can do to protect you from a movie from 1987.

I am a skeleton of few traditions, and #Nerdoween is one of the things that brings me the most joy each year. Every one of those seven years, my friend and adopted brother Jay has accompanied me. Unlike me, he is almost always exposed to entirely new things – across 21 movies, we determined that he had ever seen three of them before. And even I get introduced to at least one new film more often than not.

In fact, every year save two (this year and “killer nouns”), I’ve seen at least one new-to-me film, and sometimes (indeed, on three occasions) two. This year, the poor hosts set themselves a nearly impossible task if they wanted to show a movie I hadn’t seen, given the theme they picked, as I think I’ve seen most of those. At the same time, they came surprisingly close, as I had only seen one of the films for the first time earlier this year.

We kicked off the night with Popcorn (1991), perhaps the most obvious choice given the theme but also a perfect way to start things off. It was a blast to see in a theatre, as a movie that has always felt more like a Halloween party in a movie theatre than an actual movie.

That was followed up with Porno (2019), a movie I had previously seen when it made its debut at Panic Fest. I wasn’t a fan then, and I’m still not, but it was a good crowd movie. (It may surprise you to learn that it is remarkably difficult to perform a Google image search for stills from the movie Porno and actually turn up pictures from that movie.)

The last film of the night is often the weirdest and/or the heaviest – as is only right and proper – and this year it was both. I’m gonna refrain from saying its name here because, again, I think that to even include it on this list is to lose something of its magic, but for those who want to know, feel free to drop me a line, or you can check Letterboxd or my Twitter, where I spilled the beans.

Perhaps more so than any of the others, it was a real pleasure to see this in a theatre, especially given that literally no one else there had ever seen it besides me and one other person. Also, the sound mix was amazing.

So props to the Nightmare Junkhead crew for always putting on a great show, and I’m already looking forward to next year, when hopefully COVID will actually be a thing of the past and the only anxiety will be what’s up on the screen.

Here we are with the third (of seven) in my weekly explorations of the purple cover Crestwood House Movie Monsters books that I found at an antique store. As I mentioned in my last post, this time around I’m tackling Revenge of the Creature, a 1987 title in the series adapting the (lackluster) 1955 sequel to Creature from the Black Lagoon.

Like The Mole People before it, Revenge is a film that has gotten the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment, meaning that I’m more than usually familiar with the script. Which, once again, enables me to let you know that the authors of this book, somewhat inexplicably, took some liberties with the events of the story.

While the end of the book isn’t identical to the end of the picture, it’s much closer this time around than in The Mole People. Instead, the differences crop up in other, less explicable places. For example, when the Gill Man arrives at Ocean Harbor in the movie, he comes by boat (Porpoise III, to be precise) whereas in the book he arrives in a seaplane “specially fitted to carry a large water tank.”

Ocean Harbor is called Ocean Harbor Seaworld in the book, as well. These are just a few of the differences, though most of the others are not so striking. The love triangle between John Agar (again playing a pompous scientist), Lori Nelson, and John Bromfield is downplayed here. The line Agar tosses out about Bromfield being a “grade-A wolf” is still here, but the follow-up that he’s not going to let “Captain America cut into my cake” is missing, along with much of the rest of the film’s sexism. Instead, Agar’s character and Bromfield’s shake hands and Nelson sees that they’re “good friends.”

The book also gets inside the Gill Man’s head a little bit. “Within the Gill Man’s slow brain, a plan was forming,” the authors inform us, after the Gill Man has absconded with Lori Nelson’s character. “This woman was his. He would take her with him to the Black Lagoon.”

Okay, so maybe not all of the sexism is gone.

(Thank god that still over there got a full-page spread, by the way, so we can all bask in its fine quality.)

Like all the books in this series, this one prefaces its retelling of the film with a brief prologue contextualizing the picture. “The earliest sailors believed that monsters lived under the sea,” this one starts. “Even when scientists proved that the stories were false, many people still half-believed them.”

Ah, those good ol’ days when even most people listened to scientists when they said stuff.

The prologue goes on to briefly explain what a sequel is, and suggest that this film was intended to make the audience “feel sorry for the Gill Man,” as if the first movie didn’t already do that more than adequately. “Will you feel sorry for the creature?” the authors ask. “Maybe… as long as he stays hidden in the Black Lagoon!”

So, here’s a story: Back when I was putting together my very first collection, it was originally going to include a story called “The Tooth.” Around the same time, however, Cullen Bunn was putting out a comic called The Tooth. To make matters worse, his comic was about a monster hero in the ’70s Marvel style that grew from a dragon’s tooth, while my story was about a ghost/monster that grew from a dead wizard’s tooth. What’s more, the publisher of my first collection happened to also be publishing some of Cullen’s stuff.

In other words, Cullen Bunn and I were engaged in a Swamp Thing/Man-Thing scenario, while we were both writing for the same publisher. “The Tooth” got retitled and, ultimately, pulled from my first collection, to eventually find its way into print (under its new and, frankly, better title, “Remains”) first in Strange Aeons and then in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts.

Cullen Bunn and I aren’t friends, per se, but we’ve remained on friendly terms over the years. He lives in Missouri, I live in Kansas right by the Missouri line, which means that we find ourselves at the same conventions and whatnot a lot of the time. In the years since my first collection came out, his career as a comic book writer has skyrocketed, and he has written, well, just all sorts of things, including lots of stuff for Marvel and DC, not to mention the really great Harrow County and The Sixth Gun.

What reminded me of all this was that last night, I finally got around to watching a movie that came out last year called The Empty Man. It’s adapted from one of Cullen’s comics. The movie seems to be divisive, but most of the weird fic folks I know who have seen it like it, and I totally get why. It’s a big swing at cosmic horror, fronted by a cold open that’s basically an M. R. James ghost story with a Zdzislaw Beksinski creature, and told in the form of a detective flick. Think True Detective only, honestly, this does it better.

It’s long as hell, which I actually dug, because I hate when movies are long except when they’re also long and boring. No, wait, what I mean is, I’m a sucker for overlong procedural stuff. People looking at photographs, digging through papers, going to places and putting pieces together. I can watch that all goddamn day, if it’s done even remotely well, and especially if there’s a supernatural component at the heart of it all.

Add to this that the film is set (though mostly not shot) in and around St. Louis, and I was completely onboard for the whole ride. If you haven’t seen it and you dig cosmic horror, weird fiction, and detective narratives, give it a shot. If you have, or if you’re not into it, at least it prompted me to tell an odd little anecdote about one of my stories…

I wrote last time about my relationship with the Crestwood House monster books, how I found seven of them at an antique mall, and my plans to post about each one, one a week, until Halloween. So if you need a refresher, there you go.

Thanks to its being featured on an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, I am probably more familiar with the script for The Mole People than any other movie in either of the Crestwood sets, with the possible exception of two other MST alums, Revenge of the Creature (which I’ll be covering next time) and The Deadly Mantis, from the orange series. Which means I can tell you, unequivocally, that they changed some stuff here.

Like, the beats are all there, but the dialogue is all different. And not just that they excised some of it to keep the length of the book intact, what is there is almost always slightly off in wording – if usually similar in meaning – to what the actors actually say. But the dialogue is the least of it, in some ways. Perhaps the most startling change comes at the end…

The movie ends with the slave girl Adad – played by Cynthia Patrick, who has been gifted to John Agar’s pompous archaeologist Roger Bentley and becomes his love interest in typically ’50s creepy fashion – perishing in an aftershock just after Agar and company reach the surface. The earthquake is here, but Agar and Leave it to Beaver‘s Hugh Beaumont dig her back out and resuscitate her in a fairly anticlimactic sequence.

“Bently uncovered her face,” the authors write. “She was barely breathing. He started giving her first aid. At last, her eyes opened. In a little while she was strong enough to start the climb downward.”

Indeed, where the film ended with Adad perishing, then cutting to a sequence of the subterranean temple being destroyed by the quake, the book adds several paragraphs as Agar, Beaumont, and Patrick make their way down the mountain, and Agar laments that he has no proof of his discovery, except for Adad who, after all, looks just like any other (white) person.

He vows to dig the lost civilization back up, but Adad begs him not to, asking him to, “Let the mountain keep its secrets.”

Ultimately, he agrees. “After all,” the final lines of the book speculate, “there were plenty of other places he could dig. Besides, who would believe his story?”

Normally, in a novelization, we would chalk such a disparity up to the writers working from a shooting script, some previous version that got changed before the film was released. But given that The Mole People came out in 1956 and this book was copyrighted in 1985, that seems an unlikely explanation. Perhaps the authors were pressured (or simply chose) to give the tale a more traditional “happy” ending. I suppose only time will tell if the other volumes in this series share similar variations from their source material.

The ending isn’t the only deviation in The Mole People, even while it is the most major one. Agar’s character is less insufferable here than he is in the film, and, in a haphazard gesture toward at least a kind of diversity, the eponymous mole people are, occasionally, referred to as “Mole Men and Mole Women.” Oh, and the mole people talk in the book, which also doesn’t happen in the movie.

When Agar and Beaumont save some of the mole people from their albino Sumerian oppressors, one of them stops before leaving to tell Agar, “We re-mem-ber,” making their attack at the picture’s climax more an intentional combining of efforts, rather than the conveniently-timed but largely unrelated uprising that it seems on film.

I have written before, extensively, about my relationship with the Crestwood House monster books, most recently in the first issue of Weird Horror from Undertow Publications. For those who weren’t like me, the Crestwood House books were a series of retellings of the classic horror films of yesteryear, illustrated with evocative black-and-white film stills from those same flicks, at least some of them provided by none other than Forrest J. Ackerman.

The school library at just about every elementary school I ever attended had at least a few of them, usually the whole series. The first and best-known set, which kicked off in the late ’70s, had orange-and-black covers and titles hitting upon some of the biggest names in the Universal monster canon, including Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Creature from the Black Lagoon – not to mention more weirdo titles like The Deadly Mantis and It Came from Outer Space.

Each of those orange books provided an abridged novelization of the film, alongside trivia and context for the films that surrounded it. The Frankenstein book, for instance, summarized the James Whale film, but also talked about Mary Shelley’s novel, Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein, and other films and adaptations before and since.

The lesser-known purple series came out later, kicking off in the ’80s (the ones I have are copyrighted 1985 and 1987) and including more B-sides than its predecessor. Hence, we get titles like Werewolf of London, Tarantula, and House of Fear.

The dimensions of the books were also smaller. While the orange titles were the size of a standard “board book,” the purple series were closer in scale to a mid-grade chapter book. And where the orange books had included a breezy summary of the main film, alongside details about others, the purple series included a more scene-by-scene novelization of the film in question, even if the result was still quite brisk.

While I was obsessed with those books, I never owned any of them – I’m pretty sure they were sold only to libraries, as I’ve never seen a copy without a library stamp inside. Today, they sell for big bucks online, when you can find them at all. Recently, I came across seven of the purple cover titles in a book-filled booth at an antique mall, and brought them all home with me. It’s not quite the full series – I’ve never been able to find a definitive list, but I know I’m missing several titles. Now, as we head toward Halloween, I’ll be reading one a week and posting about it here.

Most of the books in the orange cover series were credited to writer Ian Thorne, actually science fiction author Julian May. All of the purple ones – or, at least, the ones I have – are credited to Carl R. Green and William R. Sanford, authors, according to the website of Enslow Publishing, of “more than one hundred books for young people.”

Each book includes a prologue, usually about a page long, that gives some minor context for the story you’re about to read, and from there on it’s just raw adaptation of the screenplay, accompanied, once again, by black-and-white stills.

I decided to start with Werewolf of London for a variety of reasons. The 1935 film is an oddity, given that it predates The Wolf Man by more than half-a-decade, yet never managed to kick off a franchise the way that film did, even though it was the first mainstream Hollywood film to feature a werewolf. What’s more, it actually features two werewolves, and not just one begetting the other, as in that later picture. Here, there’s an actual werewolf-on-werewolf fight!

Werewolf of London is also interesting in its relationship to the Crestwood House canon. While it didn’t get a book in the orange series, it also kind of did. Not only does the orange Wolf Man book summarize this flick alongside the Lon Chaney Jr. one, it’s the werewolf from Werewolf of London – with his Eddie Munster widow’s peak – who decorates that cover.

It’s been long enough since I watched the film that I can’t tell you for sure which liberties Green and Sanford took with the script, but the writing is, for the most part, of the “see Jane run” style you might expect, with short, unambiguous sentences. “Lisa and Miss Ettie ran down the stairs,” one climactic scene tells us. “The wolfman was faster.”

Which is not to say that such direct language can’t be occasionally effective. “Glendon knew he was now a werewolf,” an earlier scene says, conveying his transformation. “Deep, evil powers ruled him.”

“A story like that, a pain like that, it lasts forever.”

It would be more dramatic to say that today was the first time I set foot in a movie theatre since February of last year, when I went to see Underwater, blissfully ignorant that it would be my last movie before the pandemic. But that’s not wholly accurate. I went to a very socially-distanced Nerdoween last October, and I’ve been to a couple of Analog Sundays over the past few months, since I got vaccinated and they started up again.

It is true, though, that Candyman is not merely the first new-release movie of 2021 that I’ve seen, it’s the only first-run movie that I’ve caught in a theatre since that fateful showing of Underwater. In a way that even Analog Sunday hasn’t quite, it felt like a homecoming.

Since whenever the hell it first got announced way back before the plague times, I have been excited to catch this new Candyman. I am not as familiar as I maybe should be with director Nia DaCosta, but Jordan Peele’s other horror efforts have been some of my favorite films of the past decade, and I was extremely excited to see an #ownvoices take on this material.

More to the point, though, Candyman is one of my favorite films. It is, for my money, the best screen adaptation to date of anything by Clive Barker, himself one of my favorite creators. This is, in no small part, because it actually improves upon the source material, by moving the action from the projects of London to Chicago’s Cabrini Green and changing the race of the eponymous urban legend, thereby also changing the socio-political heft of the story for the better.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Peele’s name in the credits, this new Candyman takes that added heft and runs with it. What is more surprising, for me, is how well the movie seems to get what the original Candyman was all about. Better than many fans of the movie seem to. Certainly better than any of the other sequels ever did.

There are going to be mild spoilers from here on in, so read at your own risk.

Tony Todd is in this movie. I don’t feel like that’s a surprise, at this point. He’s not all over the trailer or anything, but they also haven’t exactly kept it under their hats. But he’s not in it much. Instead, the legend of Candyman has… expanded. Candyman is no longer just Daniel Robitaille – but then, he never was.

What this movie nails that so many don’t get is that Candyman isn’t a ghost. He’s not even the more tangible revenant that slashers like Jason and Freddy represent. He is the tragedy itself, not the person the tragedy happened to. “It is a blessed condition, believe me,” he says to Helen Lyle. “To be whispered about at street corners. To live in other people’s dreams, but not to have to be.”

That quote, which is also lifted more-or-less whole cloth from the original Clive Barker story “The Forbidden,” as many of the original movie’s best lines are, always resonated hard with me. It’s why I used it as the epigraph for my story “Ripperology.”

Candyman is not the person, Candyman is the myth. It’s true for him in a way that it isn’t for any of the other slashers, even while there’s an element of the urban legend about all of them. It is that element of the original’s power that this movie gets, and runs with, and exploits for its own purposes to very interesting and satisfying – at least for me – ends.

This new Candyman is not the picture that the original was – it can’t be and, mostly to its credit, it doesn’t try. It’s messier and more ambitious. It’s the rare movie that I actually think would have benefitted from being longer. Giving its characters, its mysteries, its recursions and inversions more time to breathe. Writing at the AV Club, Anya Stanley argued that the film would have been better served as a TV series and, for once, I don’t necessarily disagree.

Even at a brisk 91 minutes, however, and amid not-infrequent missteps, DaCosta and company have crafted a haunting, complex, sometimes funny, often gruesome puzzle box movie that simultaneously serves as one of the better things to grow organically out of Clive Barker’s extensive and often very organic oeuvre, and also very much its own creature.

In a world of largely unnecessary remake/sequels (requels?), the others could stand to take notes.

The original King Kong (1933) is a singular movie for all sorts of reasons, and it remains one of the best monster and adventure movies ever made. No small part of this can be laid at the feet of special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien, who did the stop-motion effects for Kong.

In fact, the effects were good enough – and novel enough – that plenty of people supposedly believed that the big ape was played by a guy in a suit, which was the standard way of making an ape movie by 1933. (Another rumor has it that the filmmakers had originally wanted Kong to be played by an actual ape, though that proved logistically unfeasible.)

The mark Kong left on movies was immediate. The sequel, Son of Kong, hit theaters later the same year as its predecessor – a quick turnaround, even for Golden Age Hollywood – and plenty of spoofs and imitators followed both immediately and for years to come. Kong would get remade a bunch of times (some of those remakes getting their own sequels), ripped-off by everyone from Britain to South Korea, and borrowed by Toho to go toe-to-toe with Godzilla (which he then did again here recently, only back in Hollywood this time).

One of the earliest of those spoofs, homages, and so on was an ultimately unfinished, one-reel musical called The Lost Island, which was slated for release in 1934, just a year after Kong had first hit the screen. What makes The Lost Island stand out among the litany of imitators and send-ups of King Kong – both made and otherwise – is that it basically flips the special effects formula of the original film on its head.

Here, Kong is, indeed, played by a guy in a suit – specifically, Charles Gemora, who had basically made a career out of playing apes in movies – and so are the dinosaurs that he skirmishes with. The humans, on the other hand, are puppets. That’s right, in this deliriously weird-sounding lost film, all the human characters of King Kong – Ann Darrow, Carl Denham, and the rest – would have been literal marionettes, doing song-and-dance numbers while a “giant” guy in a gorilla suit wrestled with a guy in a dinosaur costume in their midst.

Sadly, all that survives of the uncompleted picture are a handful of production stills, but they look every bit as surreal as you might expect from that description. It was also intended to be the first short film released in Technicolor.

All this doesn’t come up from nothing. I just watched a 35-minute short film from 2019 called Howl from Beyond the Fog. It’s a kaiju film unlike any other – set in 1909 and made entirely with puppets. It also hearkens back to the earliest origins of the kaiju film. Not King Kong, in this case, but Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Fog Horn,” which was adapted into the 1953 film The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, which is widely believed to have influenced the creation of Godzilla, which came out the following year. (Beast also had stop motion effects by Ray Harryhausen, probably history’s greatest practitioner of the form, who was himself inspired by seeing King Kong when he was younger.)

For those who have Amazon Prime, Howl from Beyond the Fog is on there for free right now, and I believe it’s also on Tubi. The runtime is a bit misleading, though. The short film is only 35 minutes long. The rest of the 70 minutes on Prime is behind-the-scenes features.

This time, two years ago, I had recently been a guest on the Nightmare Junkhead podcast to talk about the then-new 2019 Hellboy movie from director Neil Marshall. Since then, I have not revisited the movie even once, which probably tells you all about the flick’s quality that you’ll ever need to know.

As has been a recurring theme of late, it feels indescribably surreal to discuss events at once so temporally near and yet which feel so impossibly distant. I saw Greg and Jenius (altogether too briefly) at Panic Fest, for the first time since October of last year and, before that, the last time I had seen them might well have been the October before.

This is all coming up because tonight is Walpurgisnacht, perhaps the closest thing we have to a second Halloween in the middle of the spring. “Walpurgisnacht” is also the title of one of my more popular stories, which originally saw print in the Laird Barron tribute antho Children of Old Leech and was later reprinted in my second collection, Painted Monsters & Other Strange Beasts, which came out lo these six years gone by.

Interestingly, I was reminded of that story recently for reasons other than the date. I’ve been reading the latest Junji Ito manga to receive English-language release, Lovesickness, and the title story in that volume discusses the phenomenon of the Brocken spectre, which figures heavily in my tale, taking place, as it does, atop the peak from which the phenomenon takes its name.

I don’t have any big plans for the occasion this year. Maybe I’ll play a solo game of Cursed City if I become extremely ambitious. More likely, I’ll just work until late and then watch a witchy devil movie like Curse of the Demon, City of the Dead, or Curse of the Crimson Altar. How are you celebrating witch’s night?

So, Panic Fest happened without a lot of fanfare from yours truly – sorry about that. I did get out to a (very) few movies, for my first excursion to a (socially distanced) movie theater since October. Call it a celebration of my also getting the first jab of the vaccine (Pfizer, if it matters) with no discernable ill-effects save a marked absence of any eyeballs in my shoulder, more’s the pity.

I saw three whole movies this year, which is down considerably from last year, when I saw something like thirteen in a single weekend. But also it’s virtually impossible to imagine that last year was only last year. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Of those three, only one was a miss for me, and the other two were movies about watching movies, which I obviously love. Censor was my first night out at the Fest – a feverish flick about a film censor working during the “Video Nasty” era in Britain, who stumbles upon a film that mirrors the disappearance of her sister. It performs several impressive conjuring tricks, including successfully lulling you into some misplaced identification, before delivering a last act coup de grace that serves as a cautionary reminder to be wary of even the best intentions of those who wish to protect us from ourselves.

The highlight of the Fest, though, I saved for last – The Last Matinee, in point of fact, a giallo-throwback set in 1993 about a killer menacing a mostly-empty screening of a crappy Frankenstein flick at an aging Italian movie theater. The gore and stalking are all handled well, but what really sells the movie is the heart that it puts into its sense of place. I said on Letterboxd that I could have just watched these people watch a crappy Frankenstein movie for 90 minutes and been happy, and I wasn’t kidding.

The Last Matinee was also a reminder that the magic of Panic Fest – especially this year – isn’t really the movies at all. It was getting to see some of my Screenland family again, both those who so often go to movies there with me, and those who work behind the bar. As movie theaters themselves have experienced a new constriction in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the pathos of a film like Last Matinee, that is, as much as anything, a love letter to going to the movies, has a special resonance.

Here in Kansas City, our local Alamo Drafthouse has closed down (and good riddance to it, honestly, as it was apparently a wretched hive of scum and worker exploitation) and I’m sure even the bigger chain theaters are feeling the pinch. So far, though, the Screenland has managed to … not thrive, but at least drag itself on. I hope it will continue, because honestly, when it dies, a part of me truly will die with it.