Sunday, December 14, 2008

BILLY THE KID

Director: Jennifer Venditi (USA, 2007)

“I’m not black, I’m not white, not foreign…just different in the mind…different brains, that’s all.”

Having not heard anything about this documentary film, the first thing that struck me about it was how much the font on the DVD cover reminded me of the 1979 Kiss album Dynasty. It turned out to be a fitting observation, as the subject of the film is a young Kiss fan who, for reasons known only to himself, wants to grow his hair so it looks just like Gene Simmons’ infamously grotesque brillo pad ‘do!

In many ways, 15 year-old Billy Price is like most other teenage boys growing up in a small town in Maine and coming to grips with the pains of adolescence. He digs rock music and video games, fantasises about being a superhero, plays guitar, rides his bike around the neighbourhood and has his keen eye on the girl who works in the local diner. However, Billy has some major behavioural issues (his mother was told when Billy was a child that he may likely have to be institutionalised) and is anything but a ‘normal’ kid. The music he listens to is mostly old school (Kiss, Van Halen, AC/DC), he refuses to shoot women in video games (even if they are baddies) and the girl he has fallen for (a sweet, nearly blind kid named Heather) is quickly scared off by Billy’s intensity and desire for commitment.

Apart from the scenes which show Billy attempting to woo Heather (which can’t help but bring back memories – both happy and painful – of our own attempts at expressing young love), the best moments in Billy the Kid are those which reveal, either in words or facial expressions, the often suspicious way in which Billy is viewed by the adults around him: Heather’s step-father, while remaining silent, is clearly not impressed when one of the first thing Billy says to him is how much he loves violent slasher movies (which makes his reluctance to kill women in video games something of a contradiction) and the concerned school librarian immediately contacts Billy’s mother when the kid checks out a few books on serial killers.

There are also a few moments of genuine (if sometimes awkward) humour, such as Billy attempting to play guitar while watching Kiss perform God of Thunder on TV, telling a kid at school that movie monsters like King Kong are not real (“I’m not that stupid” ), and trying to impress Heather with tales of John Wayne movies.

Upon its release in the US, Billy the Kid seemed to garner wildly varying reviews, with many critics loving it but many also being somewhat repulsed by it. Curiously, I found myself sitting somewhere in the middle, detached and unable to be completely absorbed into Billy’s world by director Jennifer Venditi. It’s easy to see what attracted Venditi to Billy and why she thought he would make he perfect subject for a documentary, but I found the use of multiple camera shots, and the niggling feeling that Billy was playing up to the cameras, made the film seem at times more of a mock drama than a documentary.

Nevertheless, the film does paint an effective portrait of alienated youth, coming off almost like a filmic version of some bizarre My Space profile, and lovers of the documentary genre should find it interesting and rewarding viewing.
Copyright John Harrison 2008

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'DEATH CULTS' INTERVIEW

Thought I would post this interview with me that was conducted a few years back for a Melbourne newspaper, to tie in with the publication of the Virgin Books title Death Cults, in which I contributed two chapters (one on Jim Jones/Jonestwon and the other on David Koresh/Waco).

Why do you think people seem so fascinated by characters such as David Koresh and Jim Jones?

I think a lot of it stems from the same fascination people have with serial killers and other true crime cases. Look at the way TV news ratings soar whenever there's a terrorist attack like September 11 or Bali, or when O J Simpson is being pursued down the Californian highway by a procession of cop cars and television news. It wasn't all that long ago that the market for true crime books was a very specialised one, and was usually relegated to covering the more notorious cases. Now almost every bookstore has its own true crime section, with mass-market paperbacks devoted to even the most obscure of crimes. Maybe reading about suffering and misery is a way of convincing ourselves that our own lives aren't as bad as what we sometimes think they are.

I think it's normal, healthy human nature to be drawn to and intrigued by tragedy. For most people, that simply equates to watching the news, reading the paper and indulging in some classroom psychology with workmates around the water cooler. For some, the fascination goes much deeper, and in the case of Koresh and Jones, I think part of their 'appeal', if I can use that term, is in the sheer enormity of their respective tragedies, and trying to comprehend how one person can induce such a large group of followers into committing mass suicide.

As independent, strong-minded people, we're fascinated by how these people think, and how they are seduced into genuinely believing that another person is the true Son of God. The mass suicide committed by the Heaven's Gate group is another idyllic example - how do nearly thirty people become convinced that by killing themselves they will be picked up by a spaceship travelling in the tail of a comet and transported back to their home planet? It's beyond the rational thinking of most people, yet the members of Heaven's Gate were by all accounts intelligent, highly educated people.

Had each of these characters envisaged themselves as necessarily dying and taking their followers with them? In other words, were Waco and Jonestown necessarily the logical outcome of the actions and philosophies of these men, or did they become death cults by default?

In the case of Jonestown, Jim Jones had on several occasions held rehearsals for a planned mass-suicide, often giving his followers no warning that it was in fact just a rehearsal....it was a deliberate test of faith, to weed out those who would not be prepared to sacrifice all for their leader.

I don't know if the Jonestown suicides was an inevitable outcome for Jones and his Peoples Temple. Jones was abusive - both physically and psychologically - and a sexual predator, but had the US government, and Congressman Leo Ryan in particular - not been so intrusive into the cult's affairs, I think he would have been quite happy to continue his life ruling over his own little world in the jungles of Guyana. It was Jones' paradise, and it was only the thought of him losing it, and his followers, that drove him to the mass suicide. It's the same predilection as when a parent in the grip of a bitter custody battle prefers to take their life and the life of their children rather than hand them over to the spouse, or when a child would break a new toy rather than have to give to someone else to play with, only on a much larger scale, of course. "If I can't have them, no one else can either".

Waco, on the other hand, seemed almost destined to end in a hailstorm of violence. Koresh had been stockpiling weapons for years prior to the Waco siege, and always preached about the inevitable showdown with the authorities. It was an apocalypse that was necessary to fulfil Koresh's interpretation of The Seven Seals, the passage of the Bible on which he based his entire religious philosophy.

The deep sense of "End Times" each of these men seemed to have has been felt by vast numbers of other "fundamentalist" Christian and associated groups, from the Puritans through the Jehovah's Witnesses to the Southern Baptists that spawned Jim Jones, yet they did not necessarily spiral out of control into "death cultdom", even when they had messianic and charismatic leaders. Was that just the sheer luck of, say, the Mormons "hiding away" from mainstream society long enough to establish their "credentials" before the stain of "cultism" could be imposed? In other words, is this kind of death cult as much a product of mass media as it is mass hysteria?

That's an interesting question. Certainly since the vicious killings committed by the Manson Family in 1969, the word 'cult' - when used in any form of religious context - inspires paranoia and fear, and a lot of that is fuelled by media hype and hysteria. While I doubt that groups like the Jehovah's Witnesses would have gone the way of Waco or Jonestown, I'm sure they would have been looked upon and treated differently - and a lot more suspiciously - had they first emerged in the post-Manson age. As it is, these groups still evoke a paranoia and suspicion in some, but because they have been around for so long, and in such enormous numbers, most people do not look upon them as any kind of dangerous minority faction.

Do you feel that the fundamentalist leaders of the Muslim suicide bombers must also obviously fall into the same league as Koresh and Jones in the sense that they too urge fanatical commitment and death as an escape from the sinfulness of this life and reward in the next?

Only in a very vague way - I think it would be dangerous to categorise them as a cult. Many of these groups are seeking retribution for what they see as decades, even centuries, of repression by other countries, and their actions are often seen as both political and religious statements. These movements will continue long after their current leaders are gone, which is why the so-called War Against Terrorism will be almost impossible to win outright. The beliefs of cults, on the other hand, usually die along with their leaders.

What is it in human nature that seems to make us prone to being seduced by ideas that must inevitably see our selves completely immolated? Obviously dying for "King and Country" isn't that far removed from the sort of loyalty that saw people die in Waco and Jonestown.

The majority of human beings are terrified at the thought of death being the end of it all - that big, black and eternal void which no one can escape, regardless of wealth, social standing, political power or any other factor which shapes their mortal life. Death really is the big equalizer, and no doubt many people follow their own religion because it is based on the promise that there is some kind of paradise waiting beyond for them.

I see dying for King and Country as more of a political self-sacrifice - we are willing, or at least prepared to take the chance, of being killed in battle because it is seen as a way of defending the things we love and hold scared, such as country, family and way of life. The stakes are clearly defined, and conscription notwithstanding, the choice is usually ours to make. By the time a cult decides to mass-suicide, their choices - along with their ability to form independent thoughts and rationales - have usually been taken away from them.


Friday, October 31, 2008

LONELY MONSTER: AN INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW DUNN

by John Harrison

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Matthew Dunn is the Melbourne based creator and artist behind the Lonely Monsters series of comic books and graphic novels (see my piece on the first issue of Lonely Monsters, which I had the privilege of contributing to, in a previous blog on my My Space page), as well as several offshoots such as the Savage Bastard web comic. With his first exhibition coming up on Friday, November 7 at Melbourne’s 696 Gallery in Brunswick (see flyer below), I thought it would be a good opportunity to catch up with the artist and grill him with a few questions about his art, the exhibition, his influences and future plans.

John Harrison: Tell me a little bit about where you come from as an artist? Who were your earliest influences?

Matthew Dunn: I've been reading and drawing comics for as long as I can remember. My first comic was a crudely drawn collection of lame "gags" back in primary school featuring Australian animals. Unfortunately I shortened all their animal names in order to give them their character names, and as a result had a Wombat named "Womb" (which, at that tender young age, seemed totally fine to me).

Early on I was heavily influenced by the greats (Kirby, Ditko, Adams, etc) but would go out of my way to track down copies of the old black & white masterpieces like Creepy and Eerie, and to this day I still find that stuff amazing. Then as a teen I picked up a copy of Gotham By Gaslight which was the start of my ongoing love affair with the work of Mike Mignola. Although in the last 5 years the affair has been threatened with my infatuation of Ashley Wood's work.

JH: What mediums to you work with, and do you have a preferred or favourite one?

MD: Comics, comics, and more comics, with the occasional larger canvas piece. I work with whatever suits what I'm trying to do at the time, but mostly use various inks and push things around in Photoshop. My Photoshop work doesn't involve much filtering, mostly just layering textured pages on top of each other. I've also broken out the acrylics recently to work on some larger pieces for the exhibition and that's been a nice change of pace from the storytelling aspect of comics (which can really break your brain sometimes).

JH: Zombies have always proven to be consistently popular in pop culture, particularly in terms of film and comic books/graphic novels, but in recent years they have broken out into other fields as well (I recently saw a flyer for a Zombie finger puppet show!). What do you see as the primary appeal of the living dead, and to what do you attribute their current popularity to?

MD: Zombies are, in my opinion, the scariest of all horror fiends. They're relentless monsters who wish you nothing but harm, however the biggest fear is that you will become one yourself. At least if you're a vampire or werewolf you still retain a part of your personality/soul and are able to keep living in some capacity. But as a zombie you don't have anything but hunger that overrides every other desire and cannot be satisfied.

Part of their current popularity just has to do with people finally making really strong zombie movies/comics/etc/etc. Zach Snyder's remake of Dawn of the Dead as well as the hilarious Shaun of the Dead definitely helped to get them in limelight, as did Marvel's hilarious Marvel Zombies series, and the utterly amazing novel World War Z by Max Brooks. But for me the highpoint has got to be Chris Ryall and Ashley Wood's Zombies VS Robots series (following by Zombies VS Robots VS Amazons, and with more craziness coming in the future) which was just pure insane bliss.

People also apply a social commentary more often than not within the zombie genre these days, and I think that just makes it a more complete, real, and satisfying experience.

JH: What was the inspiration behind the whole Lonely Monsters concept? Is it something that you see continuing and evolving or does it have a set life span?

MD: Lonely Monsters started out as a 6 page short story that I put together to send around in an effort to break into the industry. At the time I was also working my ass off for a guy in the US who had a comic in the works that was a "sure thing" with one of the larger companies. I spent a few months working on that only to discover it wasn't a "sure thing" at all and I had in fact been completely wasting my time. This really bummed me out so I focused my energies on finishing the 6 page sample, and once it was done I had enjoyed it so much (and was happy with the results) that I decided to just dive right into making it a comic series.

I was going to release it as a quarterly comic, and did in fact release a first issue, but wasn't happy with the finished pages at all and decided to redo them. In the process I thought rather than re-release the first issue the story would work best within the larger page-count of a graphic novel.

At this stage Lonely Monsters is going to be a series of 5 graphic novels, but there may be more books depending on where things go. Book 1 is basically my love letter to zombies, and Book 2 is my love letter to Mad Max-style road movies, then Book 3......well I don't want to give anymore away so I'll leave it at that.

JH: What can we expect to see at your exhibition opening?

MD: More zombies than you can handle, including people in make-up wandering around making others feel uneasy (and maybe even a zombie DJ). There will be a stack of first prints of the book, a few special limited edition prints I've done for the night, as well as t-shirts, a bunch of large acrylic and stencilled canvases, and more.

JH: Have you thought much about your future plans beyond the gallery showing?

I've been running on 4 hours sleep a night for the last month so I can barely remember my name at the moment, but I do have a few things planned. But for now the focus is on putting together the best possible solo show I can.

I do plan on doing something special with a US band named The Hope Symphony, who have provided a soundtrack for Lonely Monsters (which will be packaged on CD with the book itself). The music is beautifully creepy and fragile and weird and wonderful and I just can't get enough of it, so I hope to do more with them in the future.

Anyone wanting to keep up with what I'm working on can visit me at www. lonelymonsters. blogspot. com or www. myspace. com/lonelymonsters

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Saturday, October 11, 2008

THE SONS OF LEE MARVIN

The Greyhound Hotel, Sept 26 2008

The sweaty, beer stained (but no longer smoky) environs of the Greyhound Hotel provides the perfect backdrop to experience the likes of The Sons of Lee Marvin. Having played the local round of grimy traps for a few years now, the band have evolved into an outfit well-oiled enough to be cohesive and confident, yet still retain enough rawness and minor cracks to know you’re watching a real rock & roll band - hard working, and doing what they do for the sheer love of it all.

After punchy sets by Kretch (particularly energetic) and The Hybenators, Sons of Lee Marvin treated the warmed-up crowd to a blistering run through their high-octane repertoire, which includes such ass-shakin’ ditties as Snatch, Sunshine in Her Eyes (which chugs along in a great Dave Clark Five-esque singalong) and the Cramps flavoured Night of the Hunter (named after a film not starring Lee Marvin but rather fellow cinematic tough guy Robert Mitcham).

Powered along by the twin drums of Knuckles O’Hara and Kidd Gloves, who provide a monster backbeat for the dual guitars of Stu Manchu and Cos ‘El Lobo Loco’, The Sons of Lee Marvin (who derived their name from a semi-secret society formed by filmmaker Jim Jarmusch) deliver a potent mix of raucous rockabilly, its more twisted in-bred cousin psychobilly, and 60s guitar pop, all turned up to ten and delivered with an injection of carefree punk sensibilities.

The gig had it’s share of hiccups when bassist/lead vocalist Bryan Mayden broke the E string on his bass mid-song, and El Lobo experienced a PA meltdown that put him out of action for a couple of songs, but they played it cocksure cool and somehow made it seem like such unpredictable mishaps are all just another part of the live rock and roll experience.

Which of course, in many ways, they are.

Review by John Harrison

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

A HELL OF A DAME (Short Story)

Everyone else in her life called her Marie, but to me she will always be known as Fifi.

Why am I telling you about her? Doesn't everybody have the urge to confess at some point, to revisit those seminal stops on your life's map before they become diluted and distorted by age and cynical romanticism? What the hell, you can just put this down to a pure emotional catharsis.

The rain hammered down its staccato beat on the roof and the haunting strains of the Ink Spots' Whispering Grass filled the smoky air when she first walked into the small, dimly lit bar with the tacky bamboo decor. Yeah, I know what you're thinking, I thought exactly the same thing – "Of all the gin joints in all the world…".

She pulled up a barstool and sat herself down not more than five feet from me, crossing her lithe, black stockinged legs as she signalled for the bartender to bring her a sweet white wine – Bordeaux I believe, from the banks of the Garonne River. A classy drop for a fine lady.

I watched her as she lit up a cigarette, just like I had seen her do countless times during her shift breaks at work, pressing the filter between her seductive lips and squinting her eyes slightly as she exhaled the first plume of smoke through her perfectly rounded nostrils.

Those eyes. Little pools of cobalt that you just wanted to dive into and get lost within. You looked at them and you got damn jealous of the lucky son of a bitch who got to gaze into those eyes when they were inflamed with passion.

I love ya Fifi.

Yeah, I knew her alright. Sitting there at the bar, she had no recognition of me save for the short polite smile that you usually shoot a stranger when they are drinking next to you. If she knew who I was, she didn't bother letting on.

It was a relief to this fool's heart. I felt stupid but I wanted to tell her….I wanted to tell her how every day for the past twelve months I had watched her from behind my desk at the office block we shared, wallowing in her serpentine grace as she busied herself about the floor, a corporate vixen who probably had little to no idea of the kind of lust she was stirring up in sad little men like me. I called her Fifi in the fertile playground of my mind because her mannerisms reminded me of that cute little feline sexbomb that was always getting pawed at and accosted by the randy skunk in those Warner Brothers cartoon shorts. In my dreams, I was going skunk on her every night.

She was pushing forty but sure knew how to keep it together well. That European complexion worked wonders for her it seemed, she had the kind of olive skin that radiated heat at twenty paces, and a man could whip himself into a frenzy at the mere thought of his body melting into hers. Her mouth looked like it could eat you alive and have a helluva good time doing it, and her deep chestnut hair always shimmered and looked so damned perfect. Her body curved in all the right places and at all the right angles. She was the kind of dangerously gorgeous dame that even the most rational man would gladly flush his life down the toilet for if it meant spending just a single night in a cheap roadside motel alone with her. If she didn't have a man and three kids waiting for her at home, I would have taken her to Vegas in a second. Hell, I'd have taken her anyway…..

What she was doing in this part of town and at this time of night was a curious question that I didn't try to ask. The string of pearls that hung around her supple neck and the quality of the rocks that adorned the rings on her slender fingers spoke volumes. No way a woman on her salary – or her old man's - would be buying gems like that the good old fashioned legal way. The rash of cat burglaries that had plagued the neighbourhood in recent times, and the outline of the .45 automatic pistol that I spied when she opened her leather bag to pay for her drink, told me I may have just solved a riddle that had had the cops scratching their impotent heads for months. I wasn't gonna be making their jobs any easier by ratting her out. I just wanted her even more now.

Closing time came. She stubbed out her last cigarette and we made for the exit. I heard the barman locking the door behind us. She gave me a quick smile that set fire to my heart then turned and left. I took a last look at her exquisite caboose as it shimmied its way down the wet street, and I nodded to myself in admiration before my eyes began hunting for a taxi-cab to take me screaming away in the opposite direction.

I love ya Fifi….Forever and Never.

Copyright John Harrison 2008

(Note: the above story was originally published in issue 2 of the US magazine Bachelor Pad. Visit them via their website at
http://www.bachelorpadmagazineonline.com/index.html)

Friday, September 26, 2008

A MURDER MOST SAVAGE (Short Story)

As if being violently murdered wasn’t bad enough, the girl’s death seemedall the more indignant when you consider that her last meal consisted of adouble cheeseburger and large fries, washed down with one of thosedisgusting cups of Coke that were more water and ice than cola.

I wasn’t anybody special, just a two-bit reporter from a local suburban ragthat had grown up with aspirations of being a bodacious fucking crimewriter, but had gotten sidetracked and bogged down with cutsie-pie storiesabout child beauty queens and heroic dogs who woke up their owner while the house burned down around them. I tried to rationalise it by telling myselfthat at least I was paying the bills with words, but deep down I knew I had sold out.

The scene inside unit nine at the Esquire Motel was a grisly mess. Not thatthe place was a stranger to violence. Since the early 1970s it had been ahaven for junkies, hookers, pushers, pimps and crims on the run, allsearching for a cheap room to either hide in or operate out of, and being amere stone’s throw from the sleazy neon of Fitzroy Street made the Esquirethe perfect refuge of choice.

But it’s doubtful the maid had ever thought she’d open a room to be met bythe degree of carnage which assaulted her eyes when she entered to change the sheets on this particular morning. The body was lying face down on the floor near the foot of the bed, and it obviously wasn’t a natural orvery peaceful death. Whatever this girl had done, she didn’t deserve toexit her miserable existence like this. Hell, maybe she didn’t do anythingat all – some people find a whole world of hurt coming down on them justfor being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

My lungs ached for the sting and taste of a cigarette, anything to take away the dizzying nausea that overcame me as I looked at the gaudy shower of crimson that lined the bedroom wall. Cast-off splatter, the forensic boys and girls called it….when a blunt weapon, often a simple lead pipe or baseball bat, is brought down repeatedly onto someone’s head, the blood flying off the implement and hitting the wall with each successive swing.

“Jesus, what a scene”, the homicide detective muttered under his breath as he brushed passed me, surreptitiously helping himself to the fifty dollar note I had waiting under my yellow legal pad and palming it into the pocket of his charcoal coat jacket. I’d first met him nearly a decade ago, when he was fresh-faced and new to force and would frequent the small video store at the tail end of Acland Street which I worked at part-time. He’d do what he could to track down the customers who had run off with the new releases and in return for the favour I’d slip him a couple of hardcore xxx tapes from under the counter, something for him and his partners in crime-busting to help while away the down time at the local cop shop. Since those days, the grungy video store lost its business to the big chains and mutated into a trendy coffee shop and the detective had worked himself up into a prime position in the homicide department, with the ulcer and hardening of his facial features to go along with the eighteen hour days and inflated pay packet.

Why the guy kept in touch with me I was never really sure. Maybe he took pity on me. He knew what my dreams were – I’d bored him with them over countless shop counter conversations – and he no doubt knew that I’d failed to make good on them. Then again, maybe he just had fond memories of jacking off to all those videos I’d handed over to him all those years ago, and was just trying to pay me back for the pleasure. Truth is, he was probably just another cop on the take who knew I was good for a quick fifty whenever a crime came to light that might pique my morbid writer’s curiosity. Whatever the reason was, he never stopped long enough for me to ask. It was always just a quick phone call telling me what had gone down and where to be at what time, have the fifty ready and keep his name out of the papers.

Not that the paper I was working for would even consider publishing a story about something so morbid and real as a young woman getting her brains spilled out onto a motel’s ugly grey carpeted floor, which made the motive for my being there even more questionable and dubious.

I didn’t try to fool myself, I knew exactly why I was there – I was drawn to violent crime and corruption and the underbelly of society the same way a moth is driven to a flame. When it took place in the backyard of the suburb I spent my younger days growing up in, the attraction was as intoxicating as a junkie feeling that early morning rush of heroin as it coursed and surged through his veins and transported his brain and synapses into a temporary state of blissful nirvana.

The detective knelt down as the forensic investigator, finished with examining the body and taking a seemingly endless succession of photographs of the victim as she was discovered, rolled the girl onto her back to examine her from the other side. There was a silent gasp that emitted from everyone in the room, so strong it seemed to suck the air out of your lungs for the briefest of moments.

Her bangs of shoulder length blonde hair were tainted red, and stuck to her face like bad wallpaper. Her eyes, which in life would have radiated with a deep crystal blue, stared wide open in death, their dilated pupils carrying an unmistakable emotional imprint of the horror they were witness to in their last moments, before their lights were extinguished forever…..before some sociopath unleashed all of his hatred and fury on the girl’s head.

She must have been very beautiful, once.

No one in the room had any idea who the girl might have been. No tattoos, nothing in her ratty leopard skin shoulder bag save for a long expired tram ticket and the usual flotsam and jetsam that one would expect to find in the possession of a girl this age. A few measly bucks sat on the top of the old dressing table, which probably helped rule out robbery as a factor. The lack of any ID hinted that the killer didn’t want the girl being identified in any hurry. It would be up to fingerprints and dental records to try a figure out who the girl was, assuming they could put all of her teeth back together. I wondered if the whole thing was likely to wind up in yet another white cardboard box marked ‘Cold Case’.

The mainstream press had gotten wind of the incident and began to make themselves heard at the apartment door. I’d gotten everything I needed so I decided to head down to the hotel lobby and back out into the reassuring, less-real world. The fresh air hit me like a good swift kick to the guts. I staggered across to the footpath and hunched myself over, releasing everything I had seen in that stifling room into the gutter.

I straightened myself up and lit a cigarette to try and get rid of the lingering taste and smell of vomit. I started staggering back to my car. I hated myself because I couldn’t wait to get home and start typing it all up.

Copyright John Harrison 2008

Friday, September 5, 2008

NOT QUITE HOLLYWOOD

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Had the chance to check out this new documentary by Melbourne filmmaker Mark Hartley during the week. It's an informative, entertaining, and above all celebatory, look back at Australian exploitation films of the 1970s and early-80s, when local films like Alvin Purple, The Man from Hong Kong, Patrick, Fantasm, Mad Max and Turkey Shoot were packing the drive-ins.

Featuring interviews with many of the performers and filmmakers involved (who recount some great anecdotes about the often renegade production methods utilised in these films), as well as high profile fan Quentin Tarantino (whose interest helped get the film financed), Not Quite Hollywood is a great document of it subject.

While it's made primarly for DVD, it is still worth trying to catch it on its limited current cinema run if you can, just so you can enjoy seeing the great clips and remembering just how cool a lot of these movies actually looked on the big screen.

KINGS CROSS - 1970/71

As a kid I was always intrigued by stories of Kings Cross and what an unsavoury place it was - the hub of Sydney's drug and prostitution rackets, with grimy neon streets filled with strip clubs, seedy bars and illegal gambling dens.

Needless to say the place is no longer what it used to be (much like Melbourne's Fitzroy Street), but these photos, taken by Rennie Ellis in 1970 and 1971, capture the Cross and it's characters at its best.

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http://www.rennieellis.com.au/

Saturday, August 16, 2008

DREAM DECEIVERS

DREAM DECEIVERS:
The Judas Priest Suicide Case

Thought I would post the Google Video link where you can watch this interesting and rare documentary, directed by David Van Taylor and produced for American public access TV in 1992.

On the night of December 23, 1985, after a heavy session of drinking and marijuana smoking as they sat in their tract house and continualy listened to the LP Stained Class by English heavy rock group Judas Priest, two young men in Reno, Nevada walked to a nearby playground and put shotguns to their own heads.

Raymond Belknap shot himself fatally, while the other, James Vance, was grossly disfigured. Their parents, claiming that subliminal messages in Judas Priest's songs mesmerized the boys into their bizarre suicide pact, filed suit against CBS Records. The mens' parents and their legal team alleged that a subliminal message of "do it" had been included in the Judas Priest song Better By You, Better Than Me from the Stained Class album (the track was actually a cover of a Spooky Tooth song). It was alleged the command in the song triggered the suicide attempt.

Centered around this non jurored trial, Dream Deceivers looks at this tragedy through interviews with Vance, his and Belknap's parents, other Reno "metalheads", and members of Judas Priest themselves. Plastic surgeons tried all they could to restore what was left of Jay's face, but were only able to restore his ability to eat and breathe - the disfigurement was too severe. Jay returned home to live with his parents between hospital visits and would ride his bicycle around town shocking the locals with his grotesque disfigurement. He would eventually die from a deliberate overdose of painkillers.

Writer Harmony Korine: "I used to sneak into the NYU library and they had a copy of it and I would watch it. It gave me the strangest feeling. Just the images of those two kids listening to Stormtroopers of Death, driving around Reno deserts drinking Miller-Lite. Fucking blowing their brains out, listening to Judas Priest backwards. And that guy being interviewed with this face that's completely blown off... It was so eerie."

http://video.google.ca/videoplay?docid=-5636910946432086857

Sunday, June 22, 2008

DVD HOLOCAUST

I have recently started contributing DVD reviews to the DVD Holocaust website, which specialises in covering genre, cult and off-beat releases from around the world, with particular emphasis on titles put out by Australian distributors (the website operators are based in New Zealand).

Some of the films I've reviewed for the site so far include To Hell and Back (Audie Murphy's glorified World War II biopic), the Errol Flynn doco Tasmanian Devil and the Hammer productions The Evil of Frankenstein and The Abominable Snowman.

Check the website out at: http://dvdholocaust.com/

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Sunday, May 18, 2008

KISS LOVES YOU

2007/Directed by Jim Heneghan
Reviewed by John Harrison

The early 1990s were a strange time to be a Kiss fan. Eric Carr, the band's drummer since 1980, had died in 1991 after a painful battle with cancer of the heart (thought to have been brought on by ingesting fumes from the near full can of lacquer he sprayed on his hair on a daily basis for over ten yeras). Revenge, the band's 1992 album with new drummer Eric Singer, was a strong return to their heaviest roots which wowed their die-hard fans and garnered some of the most positive critical reception of their career, but despite debuting high on the charts thanks to a big promotional push, the album quickly sunk without leaving much of a trace (it would eventually stumble to Gold status in the US), while Kiss' subsequent American tour in support of Revenge would be cut short due to disappointing attendances (again, despite great reviews and positive reception from the fans). It became clear that Kiss, one of the giants of 70s American stadium rock, who had even managed to find a degree of success in the 80s without their trademark kabuki make-up and studded leather costumes, were going to find the musical climate of the 1990s a difficult one to survive and thrive in.


Yet at the same time, the Kiss fan movement was probably at its most visible. Dozens of different Kiss fanzines were being self-published (in varying degrees of quality), and vintage merchandise and other memorabilia associated with the band was being sold at ever increasing prices. There were also the Kiss conventions, where fans (many in make-up and their own home made costumes) would gather and celebrate the band, watch vintage video clips on a big screen, see a tribute band perform, and shop at the dozens of dealers tables. Some of the bigger conventions would have former members and associates of the band as special guests, and have original costumes and artefacts on display.

The popularity of the Kiss Conventions showed the band (or at least co-founders Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley) that the past seemed to be where any future money was likely to be made. Kiss put together their own official travelling convention, which led to their MTV Unplugged appearance and eventual reunion in make-up and costumes with the four original members for a huge worldwide jaunt that would prove to be the most wildly successful tour in Kiss' history.


Produced on a fairly small budget, and shot over a ten year period, Kiss Loves You is an entertaining and at times fascinating and engrossing look into the world of Kiss fandom during this period, putting the bulk of its focus on an assortment of fans who attend the conventions, as well as several of the more popular Kiss tribute bands who flourished in the early-90s. A couple of contemporaries, such as Dick Manitoba from the Dictators and Twisted Sister's Dee Snider also offer up their (not always flattering) observations on Kiss.

Many non-fans will likely get the most enjoyment from seeing the parade of obsessive Kiss fans that are put before us – often decked out in visual emulation of their idols, they have been dubbed the 'Heavy Metal Trekkies' by the media and detractors, but while the moniker is not entirely inappropriate, Kiss fans differ in that they project a very infectious sense of enthusiasm and fun, and a very basic love and devotion towards something that – for good or bad - clearly means a lot to them.

However, it's actually the moments that involve the various Kiss tribute bands (who bear names like Strutter, Dressed to Kill and Hotter Than Hell) that provide some of the more entertaining and interesting scenes in Kiss Loves You. Director Jim Heneghan (a Swedish filmmaker who helmed the acclaimed 2002 Hellacopters documentary Goodnight, Cleveland) captures a genuine sense of bitterness, jealousy and backstabbing between the various bands – in a moment of art imitating life, the Gene Simmons and Ace Frehley impersonators in Strutter have a huge ego clash that ends when 'Frehley' leaves to form his own tribute band. Another member of Strutter refers to Kiss fans as "goons" who often get lost in the blurred line between reality and fantasy, with some treating the impersonators with the same degree of reverence as the real thing.

To Heneghan's credit, Kiss Loves You manages to celebrate the Kiss mythology even as it is simultaneously punching holes in it. Footage of Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley steamrolling unannounced into a Kiss convention and taking a collector's exhibition apart to retrieve items they claim had been stolen from them while fans look on open-jawed, will not endear the pair to everybody, and the 100+ dollars which a dad spends to make a plaque for his ten year-old son to present to Paul Stanley at a Kiss Convention would have been better spent on beer and pizza as Paul simply takes the plaque, waves it around for about a second, before carelessly tossing it onto the floor behind him, where it is later found dumped.

But it's Bill Baker who comes off looking the most disillusioned in the film. A lifelong Kiss fan who idolised Ace Frehley growing up, formed his own Frehley tribute show, and finally became sometime friend of the Space Ace himself, Baker gushes in the early segments about his admiration for Frehley, he plays us some telephone messages Ace has left him, his mom tells us about the anniversary card Ace kindly sent to her, and Bill relates stories of helping Frehley move house, and how he couldn't have picked a better person to emulate. Cut to the footage filmed several years later and Baker seems genuinely hurt that he has not heard a peep out of Ace since he re-united with Kiss, and he also lets slip that he frequently lent Frehley money, hinting at some ulterior motives for the friendship (Frehley filed for bankruptcy just nine months before the reunion tour). Baker enjoys something of a last laugh however, when he adopts Elvis as his new hero, proposes to his girlfriend at Graceland, then sells his massive collection of Ace Frehley memorabilia (including original costume pieces and jewellery) and purchases a house with the proceeds.

At only 72 minutes in length, Kiss Loves You never gets a chance to bog itself down or outsay its welcome, although the DVD release has a great selection of bonus material, including more than an hour of interview outtakes (including Dick Manitoba telling a great story about how the Dictators got kicked off a Kiss tour when he went on and took the piss out of Paul Stanley's cheesy stage raps). The DVD also features a few minutes of silent Super 8 footage of Kiss performing is Sweden in 1976, an episode of a strangle cable access television show that features some of the fans and tribute band members featured in the film, footage from the 1996 press conference on the USS Intrepid at which the re-united Kiss announced their world tour, and more.

From a personal perspective, watching Kiss Loves You hit me in a strange way. I have never been to a Kiss convention, never worn Kiss make-up or costume, and think most of what Kiss has done in the past ten years is complete rubbish that has irreparably cheapened what it once was. Luckily, I am able to separate what it is to what it once had been, and as a kid Kiss were the first band I ever got into in a big way, as well as being the first concert I ever attended (VFL Park in Melbourne, 1980) – so I can see where the enthusiasm and joy displayed by the die-hard Kiss fans is coming from, even if I struggle to understand the length and depth of their often blind devotion.

Review Copyright John Harrison 2008

Friday, May 9, 2008

IRON MAN

2008/USA/Directed by John Favreau


Debuting in March 1963 in the pages of Marvel Comics' Tales of Suspense No. 39, Iron Man has been a perennial second-tier character for that company over the past four decades – popular enough to never really be threatened with cancellation due to low sales, but never quite capable of breaking into broader pop culture to rub shoulders with the likes of Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men and The Incredible Hulk (the last three of which were all spawned around the same time as Iron Man, during a period of intensely creative productivity at Marvel).

Since Iron Man had never undergone a live action adaptation (some Baby Boomers may recall the cheesy but great low-budget animated cartoon from the late-1960s), Marvel's newly formed motion picture studio somewhat riskily chose the character as the feature of their debut, self-financed production. It's a move that's likely to pay off handsomely for the studio, and ensure the development of future productions – for Iron Man is a winning combination of action and comic book heroics, held together by a fine performance by Robert Downey Jnr. – that is bound to be a worldwide crowd pleaser.



Directed by John Favreau (the writer of Swingers and sometime actor also has a role in the film as a security guard), Iron Man updates the original comic's Vietnam setting for the deserts of Afghanistan, where brilliant billionaire industrialist Anthony Stark (Downey Jnr.) is kidnapped by a Taliban like terrorist group and forced to build a destructive new weapon which his Stark Industries company has been selling to the allies. Instead, he uses his resources and intelligence to build a crude but powerful suit of armour with built-in flamethrower and jet pack, which he uses to escape from captivity (how he manages to construct the suit under the noses of the terrorist group is probably not something we are meant to think too hard about – or maybe it's the filmmaker's way of telling us that these Taliban operatives aren't very bright).

Returning home to his Malibu mansion, Stark's ordeal causes him to have a complete change of character. He cuts back on his hedonistic lifestyle, announces to his stunned shareholders that his company will no longer be involved in the building of weapons (something which particularly upsets his right hand man Obadiah Stane – played by a deliciously evil, shaven headed Jeff Bridges in pure Lex Luthor mode), and gets to work on improving his metallic suit design into a sleek, near-impregnable defence unit, which in true superhero fashion he uses to combat the forces of evil (or at least the un-American ones). Helping him in his quest are his loyal (and in love) assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow in one of her few bearable performances) and Terrance Howard as his Air Force buddy Jim Rhodes (whom, based on a witty remark her makes while looking at one of Stark's Iron Man proto suits, is bound to be helping out in greater ways in the inevitable sequel). Samuel L Jackson also pops up in a neat little cameo after the end credits have run.


While Iron Man follows the standard format for a superhero film, it does it with a real sense of panache and excitement, and Robert Downey Jnr. imbues Tony Stark with humour and humanity, and a real sense of vulnerability (his kidnapping at the beginning of the film results in pieces of irretrievable shrapnel being lodged in his chest, necessitating the implantation of a powerful electromagnetic chest plate which stops the shrapnel from entering his heart, but also provides the source which powers his Iron Man suit). The story never allows itself to get too dark, with the suicidal alcoholism displayed by Stark in some of the more highly regarded Iron Man story arcs of the 1980s not being touched upon.

The only areas in which Iron Man disappoints is in its use of a somewhat generic soundtrack, which comes across as very gung-ho and Top Gun, and in its rather predictable climatic stand-off between Iron Man and the enormous Iron Monger (Jeff Bridges in his own metallic suit design), which is too reminiscent of the climax of Paul Verhoven's Robocop (1988). An action sequence earlier in the film, where Iron Man engages and outruns a couple of US fighter jets, is much more exciting and exhilarating.

As expected in a film of this stature, the CGI effects are very photo realistic and almost faultless, although it seems to be getting harder and harder for to wow audiences in the same way that Terminator 2 and Jurassic Park did in their day.

Reminiscent at times of the cliffhanger adventure serials of the 1940s (in particular, 1949s King of the Rocketmen), Iron Man should satisfy the kids and the adults alike, and makes for a welcome afternoon of old-fashioned, escapist entertainment of the highest order.

Review Copyright 2008 John Harrison

Saturday, March 8, 2008

FOOD OF THE GODS

1976/Directed by Bert I Gordon

I first caught Food of the Gods as a teen back in 1977, when a schoolmate and I snuck into the city (my parents thought I was at the library doing homework) on a Sunday afternoon to the dodgy Dendy cinema off Collins Street, where the film was screening with Jeff Lieberman’s brilliant low-budget horror classic Squirm.

While Squirm gave me nightmares and scared the bejesus out of me (I couldn’t open a cupboard or bathroom door for months without thinking that a million ravenous worms would come spilling out over me), Food of the Gods certainly provided its share of trashy, enjoyable thrills, and was my introduction to two great genre names that I would come to appreciate more and more in the years ahead: filmmaker Bert I Gordon and child evangelist turned exploitation actor Marjoe Gortner.

Known to his fans as ‘Mr. B.I.G.’, both for his initials and his penchant for making movies with oversized monsters, Bert I Gordon had spent over twenty years helming such B-grade wonders as The Amazing Colossal Man, The Spider, Attack of the Puppet People and Village of the Giants before Food of the Gods came along, proving that he has lost none of his enthusiasm for gigantism (he followed it up with the Joan Collins starer Empire of the Ants before his career wound down in the early 1980s, although he did come out of retirement briefly in 1990 to direct the obscure demonic thriller Satan’s Princess).

Based on the same H. G. Wells short story which inspired 1965s Village of the Giants (a brilliant giant teens on the rampage thriller with a killer soundtrack), Food of the Gods stars the muscular, curly-haired Marjoe as a star football quarterback who heads out to remote Canadian island for some relaxation before the big game, only to be caught up in a deadly struggle against giant wasps, roosters, worms and a horde of rats, all of whom have grown to oversize thanks to them digesting a mysterious substance which has leaked out of the ground (the ‘Food of the Gods’ of the title). Helping Marjoe in his battle against this rampage against nature are a combination of one-time Hollywood heavyweights (Ida Lupino, Ralph Meeker) and some younger familiar faces such as Pamela Franklin (a regular on 1970s cop shows) and Belinda Balaski (an exploitation stalwart with roles in Werewolf of Woodstock, Bobbie Joe and the Outlaw and Piranha to her credit).

Like most films from Mr. B.I.G., Food of the Gods remains a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and you’ve got to admire the fact that Bert not only wrote and directed the film, but also orchestrated its special effects (as he did with most of his movies), which utilized a combination of miniatures, giant props and rear-screen projection. Sure the effects may not be up to the standard of a multi-million dollar Hollywood production, but they are more than adequate given the film’s budget, and only add to the charm of this slice of nostalgic seventies horror.

Food of the Gods has been released on DVD in the USA by MGM, as part of their great Midnight Movies collection, although disappointingly it is a very bare bones release, with not even a trailer thrown in for an appetizer.

Copyright John Harrison 2008

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

NEW WORKS PUBLISHED

Some recent publishings featuring my writing include issue 2 of Bachelor Pad (which contains my short pulp fiction noir story A Hell of A Dame) and the first issue of Matthew Dunn's comic book Lonely Monsters (for which I contributed an essay on zombie cinema - see blog entry below).

Also, issue 68 of the great US digest magazine Paperback Parade contains an interview I conducted with legendary exploitation filmmaker Herschell Gordon Lewis, discussing the paperback novelizations he authored of some of his early classics, including Blood Feast and 2,000 Maniacs.

And issue 15 of the Australian tattoo magazine Downunder Tattoo Art features a page of my tattoo art designs.

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KISS 1980 AUSTRALIAN TOUR



I am currently preparing a proposal for a book which will look at the Australian KISS Tour of 1980. More than just a history of the tour, I plan for the book to be a reflection of Australia's youth culture of the period, and the social and cultural atmosphere which pervaded while the tour (and it's lead-up) took place.

With the 30th anniversary of the tour just a few years away, the time seems right for this book, and I am looking to hear from people who may be willing to help out in the following areas:

PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS: I am planning for one chapter of the book to consist of first-person accounts, written by people who not only went to the concerts, but those who wanted to go but weren't allowed, and even those who simply lived through the period.

PHOTOS: I would love to hear from anyone who has photos that they took during the concerts, public appearances, etc. Pics of you (or family/friends) in KISS make-up/t-shirts from the era (esp posing with members of the band or collections of KISS memorabilia) would also be great.

MEMORABILIA: If you have a collection of Australian KISS memorabilia from 1979-1981 I would love to use it for illustrative purposes in the book. If you live in Melbourne I can arrange a photographer to take photos of your collection, otherwise hi-res scans would be acceptable and most appreciated.

Please let me know if you are interested in helping out with this project, and I will keep your name on an email list and keep you up to date with developments. And please feel free to repost or forward on to anyone whom you feel may be able to help out...

LONELY MONSTERS



Illustrated and written by Melbourne artist Matthew Dunn, Lonely Monsters is a new, and much welcome, independant Australian horror comic.

The premise of Lonely Monsters is simple enough: zombies have taken over the city of Melbourne (and, we presume, the world). Most of the survivors have scattered, but a few brave souls have remained city bound, trying to scrounge out a living while simultaneously avoiding becoming a main course. Lonely Monsters follows the plight of this sorry band of survivors (not all of whom are the most desirable of characters).

The dialogue in Lonely Monsters is minimal, with Dunn using his artwork to generate most of the plot and atmosphere. With heavy black and grey overtones, the art is sombre and surrealistic, and effectively sparse in places. It's clear that the inspiration for Lonely Monsters comes from Dunn's love of both horror comics and zombie cinema, both classic and new (the comic reflects elements of George Romero's Night of the Living Dead, in that there is no explanation given for why the dead are rising, while the overall ambience of the book recalls the recent 28 Days Later and its sequel).

With a planned quarterly release schedule, the debut issue of Lonely Monsters features a beautifully lurid, color saturated cover, as well as some pages of preliminary sketch work, and a five page essay on zombie cinema (written by yours truly, who will hopefully be contributing a written piece to each issue - in Volume 2 I will be looking at the controversial subject of true crime memorabilia and serial killer artwork).

Lonely Monsters can be purchased from the book's official Cafe Press store (http://www.cafepress.com/lonelymonsters.197323224), and will also be available from select comic book and pop culture stores. You can also contact Matthew Dunn at his My Space page ( http://www.myspace.com/lonelymonsters) and keep up with developments at the Lonely Monsters Blogspot (http://www.lonelymonsters.blogspot.com/).

Copyright John Harrison 2008