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Monday, March 19, 2018

Southern California Vol. 15: The Wild Buffalo of Catalina Island

I’ve written about Catalina Island a few times on this blog.  Mostly I’ve mentioned it when talking about diving as it’s the home of some of the most beautiful diving spots around.  However, it’s also home to something kind of weird.

A herd of buffalo.

That’s right, there’s a herd of wild buffalo on a small island out in the Pacific Ocean. 
Now I know what you’re asking yourself.  How did they get there?  Were they grazing when a massive earthquake separated the island from the mainland and they’ve just existed all these years?  Perhaps they were picked up by aliens and deposited in the wrong place!
No, there’s a much simpler and obvious reason they’re on the island. 


In 1924, a Hollywood production company sent a film crew to Catalina Island to film a silent version of Zane Grey’s western The Vanishing American.  It was to be directed by George B. Seitz whose other film credits include The Black Secret and The Iron Claw.  It was to star Richard Dix who later would be nominated for an Academy Award for his performance in Cimarron.  The costar was Lois Wilson who lived to age 93 and appeared in over 150 films.

Apparently no expense was to be spared because the budget allowed for the transport of a small herd of bison to the island for use in filming.  Once production wrapped though, the crew found it impossible to round up the herd to get them back to the mainland.  After some frustration, the decision was made to just leave them to fend for themselves.  Over the years they thrived.  At one point the herd was 600 strong but now it’s maintained at about 150 individuals.  They are periodically moved to the mainland and in some cases even transported to the Great Plains where their ancestors originated.

Here’s the kicker to this story.  If you watch The Vanishing American, can you guess what you don’t see?


Every scene that featured the buffalo was eventually cut from the final version of the film.  According to Jim Watson, a columnist for the Catalina Islander Newspaper, there’s not even any footage from the Catalina portion of the shoot in the final film at all.

The good news in all this is that the bison are actually good for the island instead of being a detriment like most invasive species.

There are tours that will take you to the islands’ interior and allow you to get a look at the bison for yourself.  I highly recommend you get out to Catalina at some point and spend the money to take a tour. It’s a fantastic place to visit whether you’re under water or above it.

Thursday, March 15, 2018

Good Ideas Poorly Executed Vol. 1: Laserblast (1977)

There are many things in life that people innately know are true. For instance, if you were to run with your head down at full speed into a brick wall, you will hurt your head. We don't need any scientific study to confirm this. As human beings, we already know that the result will be a headache at best and a concussion more likely.

In the world of film, there are also laws that cineastes know are inherently true. For instance, if you make a movie about lost love and set it in the Victorian era, you will likely get Oscar consideration, even if that movie stars Jimmy Fallon and Cloris Leachman as the leads. Conversely, if you make the most outstanding comedy in the history of film featuring performances that reduce audiences to tears from excessive laughter, you will not win Best Picture.

Another law is that the number of bad films released in any given year will outnumber the good films by at least two to one. Some years it's worse.  There are a small number of those bad films though that are based on good ideas; moments of inspiration where the writer tapped into that wellspring of creativity that flows around us every day and pulled out something genuinely unique. Then he took that genuinely inspired idea to a movie studio that showered him with praise for his insight and imagination and perhaps even paid him a small sum of money.

However somewhere in between that moment and the moment the final cut hits screens, something goes irreversibly, horribly wrong.   

This series is about those movies; the ones that started out as an idea with potential and ended up on the shit heap of cinema history.

Good Ideas Poorly Executed Volume 1:  Laserblast (1977) 

The Pitch:  It's like part Star Wars, part Dirty Harry! It can't miss!

The Budget:  Although no credible numbers could be found through my tireless fifteen minutes of digging around on the internet, the budget for Laserblast had to be negligible at best.  My theory is that the majority was spent on animating the aliens and spacecraft.  The remainder was spent on securing Roddy McDowall for a small cameo that could then be billed to draw in the unwitting (his name is misspelled in the credits).  The rest of the cast were paid in Cokes and Hostess Twinkies but were allowed to keep the bottles to turn in for recycling money.

The Result:  Laserblast is probably more well known as the movie featured on the last Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode in its Comedy Central run.  It's prime fodder for ridicule, but watching it without the help of Tom Servo and Crow, one can see that lying way down in the middle of this particular turdball, there is the kernal of a good idea. 

Tapping into both the awkward feeling of not being included and the nerd boy's love of all things Star Wars in 1977, Laserblast should have been the revenge film for every teenage outcast. Billy (who looks incredibly like Mark Hamill but is actually Kim Milford) is constantly hassled by the world.  He's picked on by school bullies.  He's hassled by The Man (local cops).  Even his girlfriend's senile grandfather verbally kicks his ass.  Plus, the first time we meet Billy, his mother is packing up to go to Acapulco for what can only be a swinger party. 

The guy can't win!  The only person who believes in him is his girlfriend Kathy played by Cheryl Smith.  She's the picture of 1970s natural beauty in this film.  Alas, it wouldn't be long before she would be slumming it in Revenge of the Cheerleaders.

I digress.

As we've firmly established, Billy's a loser.  Then, while randomly driving into the desert, he stumbles on a laser gun.  Yes, a laser gun from outer space.  Don't ask how it got there.  That's covered in the beginning but raises more questions than it answers. 

Suddenly, Billy's got power and a whole truckload of potential targets to unleash that power against.  Just writing this line, I'm getting excited at the possibilities.  How can this not be a formula for success?

Once you've asked yourself that question, rent Laserblast and watch it fall apart.  Here's a quick guide to what you can expect.

1.  None of the actors turn in performances worthy of anything beyond community theater.  Even Roddy McDowall is phoning it in.  This film features Eddie Deezen in his very first role and possibly the only one where he plays a bully instead of a nerd.  Also cashing their checks and leaving the set without looking back are veteran character actors Gianni Russo, Ron Masak and Dennis Burkley.

2.  Although they're supposed to be in high school, none of the main actors look less than 27 years old.  Also, I'm almost positive Billy was cast simply because he looks like Mark Hamill.  The Star Wars fixations are not something I dreamed up either.  In one scene, Billy uses the laser gun to blow up a Star Wars advertisement on a billboard.  The filmmakers were overtly aiming to draw in the Star Wars crowd and missed completely.

3.  The acting aside, the editing is shoddy with continuity errors being some of the more fun things to look for.  Is the necklace on? Off? On again?

Want to play a game?  Take a shot of your favorite alcoholic beverage every time Billy's monster makeup only extends to his neck.  You'll likely not make it to the final 15 minutes before blacking out.

4.  The film itself looks so washed out and brown that it resembles a 1970s Super 8 home movie.  That's not me exaggerating. 

5.  Then there's the script.  It's filled with plot holes and characters doing stupid things.  Not just normal we're-in-a-horror-movie-and-have-to-do-stupid-things stupid things.  I'm talking REALLY stupid things.  The most glaring of which is Billy actually picking up the laser gun in the first place.  To put it in perspective, he discovers it when it randomly makes his Coke bottle explode (thus robbing him of a nickel of salary).

Laserblast is horrible.  It's got so much going against it that it's a wonder it found its way to DVD.  The only saving grace is the animation of the aliens.  They're done old school Harryhausen-style and are definitely worth noting even if they do look like sentient turtles sans shells.

To Watch or Not To Watch... That Is the Question:

I hate to say it, but I'd recommend passing on all but the MST3K version (if you can find it).  There's not enough good here to recommend sitting through 90 minutes.  Realize when you read that sentence that I'm the guy who loved Frankenstein Vs. The Space Monster, Plan 9 From Outer Space and countless other low budget horror films. 

Yep.  It's that bad.

Monday, March 12, 2018

Southern California Vol. 14 - The Santiago Canyon Road Bat Bridge

So this one is short and sweet.  About a month ago, I wrote a post about Black Star Canyon and the creepy trail and ghost stories associated with it.  It's a strange place for sure, especially since it feels miles away from civilization, yet sits smack in the middle of Orange County.

Let's say that you don't want to dodge squatters wielding shotguns or hurling rocks at you.  Let's say that you don't even want to entertain the thought of ghostly crying voices while you're on a hike.  Let's just say you want to drive somewhere, park your car and see something cool without even having to get out.

Well, I’ve got just the thing for you.  It’s actually a bridge (to nowhere in particular) that crosses the road near Irvine Lake.  It was built to help with traffic temporarily while construction went on nearby.  Once the work was completed, it was about to be demolished when people noticed that it had become a haven for a colony of Mexican free-tailed bats. 

Instead of destroying it, Orange County supervisor Bill Campbell was able to get the bridge labeled as a permanent bat roost.  Between 1,000 and 2,000 bats make their home under the bridge during the summer months as they make their migration south.  They wedge themselves up in the seams you can see in the picture below.

As you can tell from my pictures, I was there off-season.  However you can tell you're in the right place by looking for the stain on the road under the overpass.  If the bats are there, that stain will be much fresher and you need to make sure you're watching how long you linger beneath them.

The bridge itself is now part of the trail system so there's an opportunity there to be on top of the bridge and watch as bats fly out on their nightly hunt.  It's not as spectacular as the bat bridges you've probably seen on TV in places like Austin, Texas, but it's still pretty cool and this colony of bats does the local farmers a lot of good.  Local scientists estimate that the colony eats about thirty pounds of insects per night.  Those are not bad numbers at all! 

You can check it out for yourself pretty easily as the bridge is the only one on Santiago Canyon Road between Irvine Lake and Cook's Corner.  It's actually only a couple of miles from the turnoff to Black Star Canyon Rd. as you're heading in the direction of Irvine Lake. 

So this summer, why not head out there and give the bats some love?  

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror: The Grand Finale

For the last several weeks, I’ve told you the stories behind some of the worst concept albums in rock music history and also a couple that are downright fantastic.  For the final column in this series, I’d like to give you a short list of some others that are magnificent.  A few of these are going to be very familiar but if you haven't heard them in a while, you should do yourself a favor and spend some time with them again.  

Pink Floyd – Dark Side of the Moon:  It’s hugely popular and famous.  Everyone’s heard of it.  If you haven’t listened in a while though, revisit it.  There’s a reason it’s the best selling concept album of all time.  It's practically flawless in its execution and flows so seamlessly from song to song that you could teach a class on proper album sequencing with it.

It spent 741 consecutive weeks  on the Billboard Album Chart.  That’s over 14 YEARS!  It has sold copies in the millions and deservedly so.  The entire album is linked above.

My Chemical Romance – Three Cheers for Sweet Revenge:  This is not an album for everyone as the music is harsh and abrasive, but check out this concept.  A man loses his life in a gunfight.  He makes a deal with the Devil in Hell that if he delivers the souls of a thousand evil men to Satan himself, he can get his life back and return to the woman he loves.  Satan hands him a gun and the rest is a breakneck ride.  That's the kind of concept that should be launching a comic book series or even a movie, so it comes as no surprise that after this album, the band's mastermind, Gerard Way, began writing for Dark Horse Comics on the side.  He was also recently announced as a writer for Marvel (on a Spiderman series, no less).
   My all time favorite MCR track is on this album.  It’s called “Helena” and I’ve linked it above.

Frank Zappa – Joe’s Garage Acts I, II & III:  What’s not to love about Frank Zappa?  Well, that depends on how much of a sense of humor you have.  Personally, he's one of my heroes.

The man was smart as a whip, a musical genius and had an impressively irreverent sense of humor.  All of that is apparent on Joe’s Garage.  Warning though, this is not an album for everyone.  It tells the story of the evils of rock and roll in some hilariously ribald and (let's be honest) juvenile lyrics.  While it’s not for everyone and kind of falls apart in the third act, it’s still a fun listen.  The story is told by the "Central Scrutinizer", a shadowy character who is warning the listener of the dangers of following the rock and roll lifestyle.  In particular, he wants to make sure that you keep those awful sexual urges in check (whether you're a guy or a girl).  Eventually, it goes on to preach about the values of sex robots (again, tongue firmly planted in cheek here).

   If you're not sure whether to give this a shot, listen to the link above (but be warned that it's NSFW).  The song is called "Why Does It Hurt When I Pee?".  I'm pretty sure you can guess the subject matter.  

Queensryche – Operation: Mindcrime:  It’s a heavy metal concept album that not only tells a well thought out narrative story, it does it effectively and with style.  In fact, it is done so well that the band was able to successfully play it live in concert in its entirety.  Behind the band, two video screens showed animated clips to thread the songs together in the few places it was needed.  I saw this tour when it hit Atlanta and it was amazing!

Operation: Mindcrime tells the story of a young heroin addict who is used as an assassin by a shadowy organization.  When he falls in love and decides to make a break for it, all manner of hell comes down on him and the woman he loves.  It is incredibly effective, with just the sort of down ending you want from a story like this.  The entire album is linked above, but again it may not be your cup of tea.  If you don't like your guitars loud and your rhythms driving, then you may want to go somewhere else.

Rush - Clockwork Angels:  There is no reason that the final studio album by Rush should be this good.  What's more, it's a fantastically realized concept album set in a steampunk world where life is dictated by an all-powerful Watchmaker.  One young man decides to go his own way and encounters a ton of weirdness.  

Drummer Neil Peart came up with the concept and then worked with novelist Kevin J. Anderson to write a book to accompany the release of the album.  It was so well received, Anderson wrote a sequel called Clockwork Lives.  Musically, the album is everything Rush fans love about this band.  The song "Caravan" is linked above but you can find the full album on YouTube in Playlist form.

   And of course there are a lot more great concept albums out there.  Feel free to share your favorites with me in the comments or on Facebook.  I hope you’ve enjoyed the last eight weeks or so of concept album craziness.  I know I enjoyed writing them.

  Speaking of enjoying writing, I really enjoyed writing my book The Wash and I'm pretty sure you'll enjoy reading it.  Check it out over at Amazon!   

Monday, March 5, 2018

Patience and the Hunt for the Giant Black Sea Bass

Time for another quick diving story and this one comes with a lesson of sorts.  First, some background though.  In my experience, divers can be broken down into a couple of groups and finding the one you fit into can be particularly hard if you’re like me.  One group of divers is in it for the thrill.  These folks tend to try to go deeper, swim farther and look for the “big stuff”.  The other group (and the one I tend to belong to) is the opposite.  They’d rather do a dive that’s twice as long in water half as deep and look for all the creatures hanging out in the nooks and crannies of the reef. 

My old diving partner, Donna, was exactly like me.  We were happy as hell to just wander the reef and look for octopus, nudibranchs, eels, etc.  Occasionally though, we’d dive with someone else who would be exactly the opposite and while you’d think that since we outnumbered them they’d dive to our standards, usually they just did their own thing.

Which brings me to my story.  Catalina Island sits off the coast of Southern California and offers some fantastic dive sites.  There’s a whole area cordoned off as a dive park and nature preserve.  It’s a wonderful place to dive and at certain times of year, you get an added treat of seeing giant black sea bass.  These fish are really, really big and they’re protected so seeing them is a real treat.  They tend to hang out in various places around the island so it’s not guaranteed that you’ll see them in the dive park, but they’re there more often than not.

Enter my friend Barry.  Here’s a guy who is an instructor and understands the importance of patience when diving.  He’s also very much a member of the “go deeper, go faster” group.  Barry was actually staying on Catalina Island for a week when Donna and I went over to dive.  The three of us met up to dive in the preserve and he dropped a bit of a bombshell on us.

As many times as he’d gone diving in Catalina, he’d never seen the black sea bass. 

Donna and I had seen them a few times so we decided to head over to the side of the park where they were most commonly sighted.  No sooner than we’d hit the bottom and all given the “okay” sign, Barry took off toward the far end of the park.  At first, Donna and I tried to keep up, but soon we decided to just let him go.  Eventually, we thought, he would realize we weren’t there and would come back.

Right about that time, as Barry swam further and further out of view, a large shape appeared out of the blue.  Yep, it was a giant black sea bass.  It hovered near us for a while, obviously curious about what we were doing.  I was able to snap a picture (below) that isn’t the best in the world but it’s the only one I have.  We hung out with it for about five minutes or more when it slowly swam away.

Of course, when the sea bass left, Barry came back.  He motioned to us that he hadn’t seen anything.  Donna and I didn’t know how to tell him what we’d just seen so we motioned the shape of the fish, stretched our hands out to show the size and then pointed in the direction it swam.  Barry’s eyes went wide.  He immediately started swimming that way, although slower than he’d swam before.  He was easily ten yards in front of us when Donna tugged on my fin.  I looked back and she pointed above us.

Right there was the sea bass, still just hanging out.  It kept pace with Donna and I while Barry continued to swim ahead.  We watched it for another two or three minutes until it finally turned around and swam off.  A minute or two later, Barry turned around and came back to us motioning that he was done.  He’d struck out while we’d seen the sea bass twice.  For most of that second sighting, Barry had been within 20 yards of it but never bothered to turn around to look.

There’s a moral to this story.  I think you can figure it out, but in case you need help this is it in a nutshell.

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Great Concept Album Horror Success Story #2: Blue Oyster Cult - Imaginos

This album is not being included here because it’s great (although it is very good).  I’m including Blue Oyster Cult’s Imaginos because of the balls-out insanity of its concept, the over-arching reach of its story and how it inflamed the band’s still-rabid fanbase to further flesh it out.

Blue Oyster Cult is one of my all-time favorite bands.  They combine two things I absolutely love (horror and rock music) into consistently great material.  They’re not for everyone, but they scratch my particular itch pretty regularly. 

The band’s heyday was in the 1970’s and while they maintained a solid output into the 1980’s, they never achieved the same heights they did while riding high on singles like “Don’t Fear The Reaper” and “Burning for You”.  By 1988, they’d released 13 albums, but pop music had passed them by.  With one album left on their contract with Columbia, they went back to the well and produced a concept album based on a story written by their longtime producer Sandy Pearlman.  

The album is called Imaginos and it’s darker and heavier than any Blue Oyster Cult album before it.  It was truly a return to form and also a great album to go out on (at least until the inevitable reunion four years later). 

That’s not why I’m writing this though.  I’m writing this about the story itself. 

Pearlman’s story is amazingly ambitious.  I can’t possibly tell it any better than Pearlman himself so here is a snippet from an interview with Kerrang magazine (Sept 1988).

"Basically, it's an interpretation of history - an explanation for the onset of World War I, or a revelation of the occult origins of it.

“Imaginos is the main character, and is what I call 'an actor in history'. He plays different roles in history and was born as a modified child, modified by an alien influence, and his mission is to present the human race with the challenge of evil.

“The aliens are playing with our history as if it's a game, and he motivates the game and presents the choices to the human race. They react as they will."

Thus Imaginos tells the tale of a character realizing his true nature (as an architect of evil) and setting events in motion that bring about WWI.  It’s the kind of revisionist history that authors like Alan Moore did with The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, only instead of fictional characters, Pearlman used real events.  Also, he beat Moore to that concept by eleven years.

Here’s the thing about Blue Oyster Cult that most casual fans don't know.  Many of their albums featured lyrics by people outside the band and not just some random group of writers.  They called in heavy hitters in the sci-fi world to help them out.  Lyrics were written by people like author Michael Moorcock, poet/rock icon Patti Smith and rock critic Richard Meltzer.  

For Imaginos, Sandy Pearlman (who had written some of BOC's biggest crowdpleasers) wrote all of the lyrics and since he had an intricate knowledge of their catalog, he started linking older material to this new album.  For superfans, this was like catnip.  Pearlman dropped clues throughout Imaginos that link songs from almost every BOC album together into a narrative that spans over a decade of music.  

Here, at the end of BOC's career, fans suddenly found there was a hidden story threaded through their catalog.  They began scouring through old albums looking for clues.  Pearlman himself dropped a couple of hints to get people started.  He noted that the song “Astronomy” from BOC’s 1974 album Secret Treaties told the story of Imaginos realizing he was of alien origin.  He also included a song on Imaginos called “Blue Oyster Cult” which revealed the band’s name was the name of the alien forces manipulating Earth’s history. 

It attempts to lay out the various links in the story that had been collected up to that point.  Warning though, this is serious BOC nerd stuff.  Songs are connected through single lines of lyric in some cases and unless you are familiar with where they’re coming from, it’s easy to get lost.

Still, in my opinion, any concept album that has a group of dedicated fans twisting and spinning it like that puzzle cube from Hellraiser is a pretty good concept album.  Below is a link to the album on YouTube.  

Monday, February 26, 2018

Southern California Vol. 13 - The Unarius Academy of Science

Previously we talked about George Adamski.  If you don’t remember (or didn’t read the post), Adamski was a pioneer in the UFO Contactee world who wrote a number of books about how he was contacted and told secrets about the universe by aliens from Venus.  He also started a commune of like-minded individuals near Mt. Palomar.

Now, Adamski may be one of the first people to try to organize a religion of sorts around UFO contact, but he was definitely not the most colorful.  That title would have to go to another San Diego area resident whose efforts to start a contactee “religion” (they hate when it’s called that) paid off so well that it continues to this day.  I’m talking about the Unarius Academy of Science, founded by Ernest and Ruth Norman.  Their headquarters is located in a strip mall in El Cajon (just outside of San Diego). 

Visiting there isn’t something I’d recommend to everyone, but for those of you who do things like volunteer for the free screening by the Scientologists in Hollywood just for the experience, this is your kind of excursion.  It’s also one of the kitschiest places on the planet, so if you like your Las Vegas with a heaping helping of Liberace, this may be the religion for you.

Ernest and Ruth started their contactee group in 1954.  Ernest had been lecturing on the topic of “inner contact” and when he met Ruth, he realized she was the woman who could help him bring this message to a larger audience.  He wasn’t wrong.  She changed her name to Uriel (which stands for Universal Radiant Infinite Eternal Light) and began writing down what Ernest was channeling from these beings beyond the stars.  The result was a philosophy (they are very adamant that it is not a religion) that involves reincarnation, channeling past lives, an alien federation and the preparation for the arrival of our “space brothers”. 

That latter part concerns the imminent arrival of aliens who will bring us up to speed in matters of science, technology and ethics so that we can join the intergalactic federation of planets.  The Unarians have even purchased the site where the spaceships will land and they maintain it while we all wait.  You can thank them yourselves when you visit.

My favorite part of this is that the spaceships will arrive and stack on top of each other, becoming a tower of learning (a shining university of spacely knowledge).

Now, the Unarians don’t believe in death.  They believe that we just transition from one life to the next and so when Ernest transitioned in 1971, Ruth/Uriel stepped things up a notch.  Here’s where the kitsch comes in.  She began wearing flowing satin robes, a crown and began carrying a scepter and a single rose.  The “research” by the Unarians uncovered that she had led many past lives and was actually a reincarnation of Socrates, Queen Elizabeth, Confucious and others.  In fact, they found that she was also a reincarnation of Mona Lisa and that Ernest was a reincarnation of Da Vinci, which is why he painted her.

Makes sense, I guess.

Anyway, that outlandish sense of style that Uriel had carried over to the Unarius Academy of Science as well.  Inside, you’ll find columns, statues and an abundance of awesome paintings as well as a model of what the futuristic city will look like once those spaceships finally get here.

If you’re wondering about whether we can expect the Unarians to do something like that Heaven’s Gate group did and kill themselves, well fear not.  The Unarian beliefs warn strongly against suicide.  Instead, they believe that by studying and dedicating yourself to looking inward, you’ll be able to contact the aliens yourself and will be prepared for the next phase once you “transition”.

I don’t know about all that, but I do know that they have a kickass 1968 El Dorado, so they can’t be all bad.