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Thursday, August 16, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 15 - War Eagles!

For the next few weeks, I want to focus on what never was.  Sounds confusing, I know, but it’s actually a fascinating subject when it comes to movies that were almost made but didn’t quite make it to production.  It’s especially fascinating when they’re connected to big name franchises or tried and true directors/producers.

To kick things off, let’s talk about War Eagles, one of the greatest movies never made.  A few weeks back, I posted about the true story that inspired Merrian C. Cooper’s King Kong.  The gigantic success of that picture seemed to have set up Cooper to be a major player in Hollywood for years to come.  

His next picture was an action/romance film called Flying Devils that featured daring aviation stunts and a love triangle resulting in an attempted murder.  Next up was his Kong sequel, Son of Kong, which isn’t nearly as good as the original but which I love dearly anyway.  

For his next film, Cooper had a hell of an idea and he began turning the wheels to make it happen.  

The plot involved an American pilot who crashes on a mysterious island.  He soon finds that it’s overrun with dinosaurs and while that sounds familiar, this next part takes a hard left into unexplored territory.  

You see, the island is also home to a race of Vikings who have been there for generations.  They’ve learned to tame some of the local fauna, in particular giant golden eagles who they ride into battle against the dinosaurs when attacked.

What happens next is pure 1930’s Hollywood gold!  Nazi’s also land on the island only this group is using it as a staging area to launch an attack on New York.  They have a secret weapon and if it’s deployed, it will cripple America and bring Nazi rule to the States.  

The American pilot convinces the Norsemen to help him stop the invaders and a battle between Nazi fighter planes and Vikings on giant eagles ensues in the skies above New York.

Tell me you don’t want to see that.  Seriously, it would have been one hell of a movie.

How close was it to being finished? 

The script had been polished and completed. Cooper had hired on Willis O’Brien (of King Kong fame) to do the effects work and his test footage designs and sketches had all been approved. 

Articulated models had been created and yes, the image above is one that still exists.  Sets were being constructed.  It was so close that you can almost taste it, but this time around the Nazi’s won.  

World War II escalated to a point where Cooper felt compelled to reenlist.  Once that happened, the bottom fell out and after the war ended, Cooper moved on to other things.

Still, the idea has floated around in the minds of film buffs for years and it actually reached some form of completion in 2008 as a novel.  

Carl Macek (Robotech) wrote a fully realized version that you can pick up at Amazon if you’re so inclined.  

However, if you want to read the original script as well as the definitive document on the whole project, you can.  War Eagles: The Unmaking of an Epic by David Conover is a love letter to this lost film.  It collects production notes, stills, test designs and more importantly, the finished script by none other than Cyril Hume (the man behind the script for Forbidden Planet). 

I encourage you to seek it out as it’s a fascinating read that will set your mind wandering over all the things that could have been if Hitler hadn’t pulled the rug out from under Merrian C. Cooper.

See you next week!

Monday, August 13, 2018

Exploring Japan Vol 10 - The Insanity That is Hello Kitty Land!

So last week we talked about Godzilla and I mentioned that he’s harder to find than you’d think.  The same cannot be said about Hello Kitty.  She is everywhere.  You’ll see her on snack foods, clothing, advertisements, and even in PSA’s on the windows of taxi cabs and trains.  There is no escaping Hello Kitty or any of her cohorts. 

Just check out that ceiling in the train station near Sanrio Puroland.  Now, you’re probably thinking to yourself, why is Cary even writing about this? 

Well, I am but one of three people who were traveling together on this trip.  Since my wife and daughter generously tolerated my Godzilla obsession, I owed them and they exacted payment in the form of a Sanrio Puroland visit.

What is Sanrio Puroland? 

It’s basically the Hello Kitty equivalent of Disneyland.  There are multiple parks across Japan but the one closest to us was in Tama New Town about a 45 minute train ride outside of Akihabara.  The entire park is indoors and there are rides, shows, a parade, games, themed foods and lots and lots of opportunities to buy Sanrio toys.

So yeah, just like Disneyland.

I know I’m making it sound like I only went along because I was paying back a debt.  That’s not entirely true.  My wife gave me an opportunity to back out but I didn’t take it.  The fact is, I knew that there would be weirdness here and honestly, I didn’t want to miss out.  Case in point, the creamery.

You may think that all ice cream just comes from cow’s milk, but you have no idea what kind of work goes into creating an ice cream cone at Sanrio Puroland.

First, there’s the cow who’s smiling even though there’s an industrial sized pipe coming from underneath her and into...

a sentient mixing bowl (who seems to be in horrible pain).  

Notice that above it there are the two very cold chickens who apparently drop eggs (shell included) into the same mixing bowl. 

After the concoction is mixed, it’s sent through to the next stage where the Goat Supervisor (I kept referring to him as the Overlord), coerces sentient jars of ingredients to drop their loads into said ice cream.

It’s all then piped over to a place where it’s put into cones.  However, next to the cone area are these guys who seem to spend all day eating fruit and getting hammered on whatever’s being poured by the guy with the two jugs just underneath Santa.  Oh yeah, the Jolly Old Elf is involved in all of this somehow. 

See?  How could I miss this?  And that's just one, tiny little area inside this giant building!  There are so many highlights I could show you.

Like the ride with the giant Seal who stares you down as you head into it.

This guy who obviously has a thing for this monkey’s butt.

Giant playsets where you can interact with Hello Kitty.

A virtual dress-up game where a guy like me can show off my feminine side.

A sad egg you can sit next to and commiserate with when you realize you’re just not pretty enough.

Another egg with a fully formed human butt for some reason. 

What is it with the butts around this place?

And speaking of butts, even the bathroom stalls are themed.  

The one thing you need to know up front though is that all of this is in Japanese.  There is very little English to be found here so if you decide to go and you don’t read or speak the language, understand that you’re going just to watch the weirdness unfold, but trust me.  There is more than enough of that to entertain you for a few hours.

If you’re on the fence about seeing this for yourself, I don’t blame you so, I’m going to let you in on my favorite part.  Inside the park, there’s a boat ride.  It takes you along on the gang’s adventures and one character is known for being a troublemaker.

Imagine my surprise when we turned a corner to find him smoking and gambling at the pachinko parlor!  It was awesome but then we turned another corner to find…

His mother had caught him and was giving him the spanking of his life!  So yeah, if you want to see some strange stuff, head to Sanrio Puroland. 

Next time around, I’ll show you another indoor funhouse/amusement park that has a cool, scary twist to it. 

Thursday, August 9, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 14 - King Kong Appears in Edo

What if I told you that there was a Japanese giant monster film that predates Gojira by 16 years?  If you’re a film buff, you’d probably tell me I’m full of shit, but I could show you some stills of a giant ape terrorizing Tokyo that would blow your mind.

Not so sure I’m wrong now?  Well, to be honest you’d still be correct.  Technically, I’m full of shit, but those stills tell a fun story.

When the film industry first boomed in the U.S., a series of studios sprung up that are affectionately referred to as “poverty row”.  They created cheap, quick films that tended to try to cash in on whatever the latest movie craze was at the time.  The film industry in Japan was no different and in 1938, Zensho Cinema was one such company.  They were so cheap that even after the invention of sound, they continued to produce silent films all the way up until their demise in 1941.  So why would a cheapo movie studio even consider taking on the expense of a movie that required special effects?

The answer is simple:  King Kong.

In 1938, King Kong was getting a Japanese release.  Zensho knew this and commissioned a quickie film about a man whose daughter is kidnapped.  The villain who kidnapped her did so with the help of a trained pet gorilla named… 

wait for it… 

wait for it…

King Kong.

The only problem is the gorilla isn’t a giant.  It’s just a normal gorilla.  I won’t bore you with the details of the rest of the plot.  You can find that on Wikipedia. 

Zensho titled the film King Kong Appears In Edo and to drum up the connection with the American film, they produced stills that make the ape appear king-sized.  These were used in all of the advertisements of the time, leading moviegoers to believe they were paying for a special effects extravaganza when in fact it was a drama with a normal sized (though admittedly murderous) gorilla.

The film has since been lost and all that remains are the stills, so those who find them and don’t know the story can be forgiven for thinking that Gojira wasn’t the first giant monster to terrorize Tokyo.

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See you next week!

Monday, August 6, 2018

Exploring Japan Vol. 9 - Godzilla!!!!!

Those of you who know me or have read the blog for a while know I’m a monster fan at heart.  You’ve probably been asking yourself why it’s taking me so long to address Godzilla in all of these posts about visiting Japan.  Well the fact is, he’s more difficult to find than you’d think.  Sure, you’ll see him in the occasional gachapon machine and you can find toys in most decent toy stores, but there’s no Godzilla museum or even a decent exhibit in a Toho theater. Instead, you have to travel around and check out multiple sites that have a few things here and there.

First up, you can visit the Toho theater in Shibuya.  On the third floor, you’ll find the original Gojira statue that used to sit outside in a courtyard area.  As you can see, it’s kind of small given the subject matter, but it’s a cool statue nonetheless.

It was moved here after it was replaced by this statue in that same courtyard.  This version is the same one seen in the excellent Shin-Gojira that was a huge hit in Japan in 2016.  It’s bigger than the original but still, it’s not Godzilla-sized and it's just a statue in a courtyard.

What you really want to see is something big, crazy and loud, right?
There’s only one of those and it’s in Shinjuku.  That’s right, the same Shinjuku that I described last week as a little on the shady side.  The Hotel Gracery partnered with Toho in constructing a giant Gojira head and claws on its roof.  

Even from a distance, it looks like he’s about to come right over the building.  It’s located (conveniently) on Godzilla street.  

Take the elevator up to the lobby and you’ll be confronted with this awesome display featuring every single Toho Gojira movie poster in chronological order, from the original all the way through Shin-Gojira.  

Then, you can walk out onto the roof and see the big guy up close and personal.  

The base features famous scenes and an area where you can activate a low roar and sound effects.  The real treat is to be there when the giant head comes to life. Steam and lights begin pouring from its mouth and it lets out with a very loud roar!

Once you’ve finished looking around, if you still want a little more Gojira related fun, head to the hotel’s cafĂ© and you can order a themed dessert.  I can’t vouch for them because we weren't hungry, but the main one is meant to resemble elevated train tracks and I’m sure playing with your food in this situation would not be frowned upon.

These are the major Gojira attractions in Tokyo proper, however there are others outside the area that we didn’t get to.  

For instance, there’s the giant slide at this playground called Kurihama Flower Park in Kanagawa.  

There’s also a giant footprint and plaque in Kanonzaki commemorating where the beast first made landfall in the original film.  

For years there was a slide and statue here also but it deteriorated and was torn down in the 1970’s. 

Finally, for those who are diehards who really want to spend a day getting closer to their favorite film, you can visit any number of major sites that were replicated in miniature and destroyed by the man in the rubber suit.  Here’s a quick list of some you can easily see by foot, train or river cruise.

Tokyo Tower – featured in multiple movies this was destroyed in many kaiju films from Gojira to Gamera.  At the time of Godzilla’s heydey it was one of the tallest structures in the city measuring 333 feet high.  It’s now been overshadowed by Toyko’s Sky Tree Tower which has been voted by Japanese fans as the structure they’d most like to see destroyed in the next film.

National Diet Building – This is the home of the Japanese parliament and accounts say that people cheered in 1954 when Gojira destroyed part of it.  This was because there was still a lot of resistance to the proposed Treaty of Mutual Cooperation between Japan and the U.S.  In 2003, the big guy came back to finish the job with help from Mechagodzilla in Godzilla: Tokyo S.O.S.

Ginza District – This is a very upscale area and in 1954 certain places within it were iconic.  That’s why Godzilla made it a point to smash the Matsuzakaya department store and the giant clock that tops Wako, another building that every Japanese native would recognize.  The Ginza district has been featured in many of the sequels as well.

Odaiba – This is an artificial island in Tokyo Bay that houses hotels, a mall (that felt a little too American to us), a giant ferris wheel and can now be accessed by monorail.  It was destroyed in Godzilla vs. Megaguirus (2000). Notice the ferris wheel on the far right in the picture above.

Kachidoki Bridge – This drawbridge was completely obliterated in the 1954 original film.  You can see it by taking a river cruise down from Asakusa to Hamarikyu Garden.  That same cruise will take you all the way to Odaiba if you want, but the Garden is a great place to wander and you shouldn’t miss it.

And that’s your Godzilla tour of Tokyo!  Next week, I’ll take you to a place even more horrible than anything ever imagined in any Godzilla film ever made:  Sanrio Puroland a.k.a. Hello Kitty Land.

See you next week!

Thursday, August 2, 2018

Horror Histories Vol. 13 - The True Story Behind Ringu

One of my favorite things about being a horror fan is finding out about new subgenres I’d never heard of previously.  It’s not the same as hearing about an obscure film and seeking it out.  Finding a new subgenre is like being handed a chest full of gold.  Suddenly there a multiple films and an entire history to dig back through.

J-Horror (Japanese Horror) was one of those discoveries that sent me down a rabbit hole with seemingly no end.  There were so many good movies to dig through from old classics like Onibaba to the chaotic death match of Battle Royale to the twisted (pun purely intended) and gruesome Uzumaki.  Not to mention Juon: The Grudge, Pulse, Dark Water and a slew of others.  

The film that really brought J-Horror to most people’s attention was Ringu. It’s the story of a cursed videotape that brings death to whoever watches it.  The deadly ghost in the tape is named Sadako and as I mentioned in the blog about my visit to Aokigahara forest, she is modeled after the traditional descriptions of Japanese ghosts: long, scraggly black hair, a white burial robe and a thirst for vengeance.

What most people don’t realize is that the story behind Sadako’s tragic death and unresolved rage is actually real.  She is based on the true story of Chizuko Mifune.  

She lived over a hundred years ago and was rumored to have psychic powers.  Tokyo University’s own Tomokichi Fukurai heard the stories about her and decided it was worth investigating further.  After meeting her, he arranged to have a public demonstration so that everyone could see Chizuko’s powers for themselves.  Instead, people called her a fake. 

Whether she was a fake or really had a gift, no one knows for sure because before another test could be conducted, Chizuko took her own life.  This is almost the same back story given for Ringu’s vengeful spirit. 

As for the well that Sadako climbs out of, this is also based on a real haunted well.  In western Japan there is a famous castle called Himeji.  It happens to be the setting of one of the most famous ghost stories in all of Japan.  The story goes that a servant at the castle was approached by a samurai who tried to seduce her.  She refused him and in a fit of rage, the samurai killed her and threw her into the well.  Her ghost is said to haunt the well and the grounds around it to this day.

The picture above is of the well she threw herself into at Himeji Castle.  
If you haven’t seen Ringu, you really should.  It’s an extremely creepy movie that holds up very well, even though most people under 30 barely know what a “videotape” is.  

See you next week!