Day of the Dead DVD Review: Sugar Hill

Posted in movies on November 2, 2011 by Pat Padua

Don Pedro Colley as Baron Samedi

Article first published as DVD Review: Sugar Hill on Blogcritics.

Warner Brothers is not the only studio who has opened up its coffers to burn-on-demand delivery. MGM dips its august toes into new waters with their Limited Edition series. The studio has yet to take this show on the social media road, so you can’t interact with them on Twitter and Facebook, as you can with Warner Archive’s excellent outreach program. The movie buff will have to dig a little deeper to find MGM Limited titles, but they are well worth the search.

A blaxploitation zombie movie may not seem a promising first peek into the MGM Limted collection, but the benignly titled Sugar Hill (1974), originally released by exploitation kings American International Pictures, is a pleasantly undead surprise. The picture is rated PG, which means it doesn’t have the sex and violence associated with either vintage blaxploitation or the modern zombie film. It makes up for the lack of flesh and gore with an efficient use of its low-budget and some fabulous character actors populating the underworld.

Also known by the more descriptive title The Zombies of Sugar Hill, this is the only directorial credit of Paul Maslansky, who went on to an inauspicious career as the producer of all seven Police Academy movies and the television series. Sugar Hill works well enough that you wish Maslansky stayed in the director’s chair, and one wonders if he curses the day Steve Gutenberg walked into his life.

Marki Bey, who went on to a recurring role as Officer Minnie Kaplan in Starsky and Hutch, stars as the titular Hill, whose man is murdered after refusing to pony up protection money to the gangsters shaking down his nightclub. Sugar Hill vows revenge on this murderous cabal and enlists the help of frizzy-haired Mama Maitresse (Zara Cully, aka television’s Mother Jefferson) who summons zombies out of Houston, Texas swampland.

And that’s it for plot. Revenge unfolds on the gang of miscreants one polyester-tailored man at a time. Plots this simple are a staple of cinema, from the Japanese ghost story Kuroneko to the pre-slasher classic Massacre at Central High to the grindhouse homage Machete. Such simple scripts only work as well as good as the actors who bring it to life — or not — and Sugar Hill is blessed with the most charmismatic of zombie leaders. Don Pedro Colley, who had a supporting role in the blaxploitation classic Black Caesar, brings a vivid glee to his role as the mascaraed, gold-toothed Baron Samedi, who elegantly lords over a funky crew of undead straight out of Val Lewton’s I Walked with a Zombie. These are not the brain-eating zombies of recent cinema but a more sinister variety.

Like Warner Archive, MGM’s limited edition discs are no-frills presentations, but the solid transfer from a good print makes this a pleasure to watch.

The Bloggy, Bloggy Boo Review: The Berenstain Bears Go on a Ghost Walk (iPhone/iPad app), by Stan & Jan Berenstain with Mike Berenstain

Posted in books on October 19, 2011 by Pat Padua

Article first published as Book Review: The Berenstain Bears Go on a Ghost Walk (iPhone/iPad app), by Stan & Jan Berenstain with Mike Berenstain on Blogcritics. I neglected to mention that the book, as suits its target audience, is not particularly scary, what few frights it holds being the slight misadventures of Papa Bear. The  eponymous ghost walk is spoken of but never seen. Afficionados of actual ghost walks, like my eight-year old niece, may find this virtual tome, for all its tales of cute bears, wanting in the haunted department.

In 1952, Stanley and Janice Berenstain published Tax-wise: A Pictorial Romp through the Tax Form. Little did they know that their gift for caricature and storytelling would develop into a beloved franchise of anthropomorphic bears. Stan died in 2005, but Jan and son Mike Berenstain carry the ursine torch into the 21st century, and just in time for the season of fright and identity, The Berenstein Bears Go on a Ghost Walk is available in interactive apps for iOS and Android platforms.

The Beresntains got their first break from Theodor Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, who in 1957 was editor for a Random House series of children’s books. Geisel encouraged Stan and Jan to find another power animal as he thought the bear market was overcrowded. Luckily for generations of children, they stuck to their furry guns.

The Bears have come a long way since 1962, when Stanley and Janice Berenstain published Big Honey Hunt. The characters have transformed in much the way the Simpsons have changed over the duration of their hundred-year television reign. The lovable bear family have now entered the digital world, but despite the electronic format, the artwork retains visible cross hatching and other lines that endearingly remind you of the craft that goes into the drawings.

The Berenstein Bears Go on a Ghost Walk finds papa bear hard at work – and at play – preparing the kids for a school ghost walk, starting with pumpkin harvest time. But idyllic scenes of pumpkin farms are too sedate for papa, especially at this most frightening time of the year. After carving out pumpkins to make jack-o-lanterns, papa demonstrates his signature Falstaffian over-enthusiasm, taking a garbage-can full of pumpkin innards to fashion a meaty costume for himself. Alas, the children are too frightened by the vision of the pumpkin monster and run to mama.

This incident serves an important triple purpose. It demonstrates to kids that papa loves them in his clumsy fashion; it shows bumbling fathers that a little too much enthusiasm can be overwhelming, but that things will turn out right in the end; and it shows humans of all ages that bears are a force to be reckoned with, and not to be taken lightly whether or not they are enrobed in fresh pumpkin meat.

Oceanhouse Media developed the electronic edition of Ghost Walk from the Harper Collins original, and the iPhone app that I tested is well-designed for interaction with little fingers. Readers can choose if they want the book to be read to them by an enthusiastic maternal stand-in, or if they want to read the book themselves. For the adventurous reader who may struggle with harder words like “misshapen” and “festooned,” touching individual words allows them to hear the words again. Touching specific areas of the art work provide instant identification of characters like “mama” and “papa,” as well as environmental details like “sky” and  “grass” as well as seasonal signifiers like “ghost” and “black cat.” Children of all ages will enjoy the interactive features of these classic characters updated for the technological age. Parents will nod their heads at the perpetuation of gender stereotypes.

Again!

Available from the iTunes App Store here and from Android Market here.

under construction: the national building museum

Posted in DC, photography, Washington on June 17, 2011 by Pat Padua

I promised my niece more ghost stories, and I will make good on that promise before Halloween and much sooner. In the meantime, my every camera I own project spawned a spooky tale – or at least hints of one – on the bloggy, bloggy dew.

every camera i own: pingo

Do spectral faces whirl between the columns of the National Building Museum?

Washington Ghosts: Historic Strolls

Posted in DC, ghost tours, Washington on October 30, 2010 by Pat Padua

The spooky foyer of the Octagon House

Welcome to my semi-annual ghost blog post.  I have let the cobwebs accumulate and will do my best to dust them off and provide you the reader (and despite my complete inactivity on this blog, it still gets more hits than the mothership, The Bloggy Bloggy Dew).

I have been frightfully busy writing for other venues, for money and for glory. And for glory and comps I attended two tours run by Washington company Historic Strolls for DCist, where I am now a regular writer for Arts and Events. Read my ghost tour write-up here. I felt little eeriness during the Saturday tour outside the White House and environs. But a few nights later, the moment I went inside the Octagon House, I felt strange. Not a sinister strange but the kind of presence you feel in empty spaces that don’t feel quite empty.

The security guard who let our group into the building playfully hid behind the door, which is how the foyer was designed: to keep the servants out of the way and as unintrusive as possible. But perhaps there are those there who are still invisible, whose history will never be written. I’m willing to hear out their stories. I just signed up for National Novel Writing Month, and in order to meet the 50,000 word count required in order to “win”,  I’ll have to write on the order of 1600 words a day for the whole month of November. As this post will barely top 250 words, I beseech the spirits, be they external or internal forces, to find in me a proper conduit for their untold tales. I’ll need the help.

Ghosts of Gettysburg

Posted in Carol Channing, cemeteries, Gettysburg, photography, youtube on October 30, 2009 by Pat Padua
Ghosts of Gettysburg

photo by Veronica Ebert - is that a General emerging stage right?

Gettsyburg, Pennsylvania, especially during the anniversary of the bloody battle, is by far the most haunted place I’ve been. In several days there V. and I both *saw* things we couldn’t explain. She saw soldiers trampling through our room, atop what once was Cemetery Hill; I saw a short figure in a bonnet across from what I later learned was an orphanage.

The abundance of ghost tours in Gettysburg (and the cornucopia of paranormal-themed programming on cable tv) tells you how much of a demand there is for ghost stories and spooky experiences. But the most haunted spots weren’t on the tour, and weren’t even the places named in the vanity press ghost books that prop up the ghost tour industry in this ghost-encrusted town.

As loyal readers of this blog may know, V. and I are wont to take our Carol Channing ventriloquist dummies into the field. Bringing these blonde plastic vixens onto this hallowed ground gave us some pause, but before we knew it we were posing the dolls on the replica cannons that were scattered on the field. If the spirits of any young soldiers were about, perhaps they were intrigued by our play and wanted to play too:

come and take my skull for a ride

I took this video on our second midnight walk on East Cemetery Hill, our last night in Gettysburg. The town was packed with history buffs primed for re-enactments, and the re-enactors themselves, stuck in a strange and devoted cycle of repeated history, so we were periodically met by other late-night ghost hunters. But as we got used to the dark we pressed further on into the cemetery, far from any other people and even free of the sound of the now distant road. I scanned the landscape with my Flip Video camera and didn’t hear anything unusual till I uploaded the video days later.

goodbye east cemetery hill, originally uploaded by a nameless yeast.

TV Review: Phantoms of History: Savannah, Georgia

Posted in tv on October 30, 2009 by Pat Padua

First published on Blogcritics.org

When will some intrepid television producer devote an entire cable station to paranormal phenomenon? We’re almost there. It seems that every time you turn around to investigate that sudden chill at your back there’s another program on cryptozoology or UFOs or that old standby, the ghost story. There must be a dozen cable series on ghost hunting alone, each with its own distinct personality.

The most recent buzz has been around Celebrity Ghost Stories, which offers the likes of Joan Rivers talking about the haunted Manhattan ballroom she bought when she was down on her luck. It’s a good story, but even scarier is the the monstrous veneer left on her face by decades of plastic surgery. In a similar vein is the late and lamented Celebrity Paranormal Project, a VH1 series that married reality television, ghost hunting, and second- and third-tier celebrities, many of whom seemed to be plucked from the also-rans of Survivor: Oh My God the Jungle, but which also had the ingenious sense to have Gary Busey lead a rag-tag team on an overnight ghost hunt. To Mr. Busey, one of the resident spirits sounded just like a mechanical tiger. For the love of Moloch, somebody please give him his own ghost show.

Phantoms of History enters this crowded field with a different and gimmick-free angle on paranormal phenomenon. In its pilot program on the ghosts of Savannah, Georgia, it looks at what is considered one of, if not the, most haunted city in America and sorts out the facts and fictions behind some of its best known ghost stories. The idea isn’t to debunk the spooky tales but to present a more accurate history of the truth behind the legends.

Re-enactments are de rigeur in both historical and paranormal-themed television, and Phantoms is no exception. Production values are generally good, but as entertainment value the program doesn’t stand out from the ghastly pack of competing macabrologists. A case in point is a story on the Moon River Brewing Company, which was documented to more dramatic (and funnier!) effect, and with some of the same talking heads, by the goofy Ghost Adventurers, whose home base is in Savannah.

As a veteran attendee of ghost walks across these haunted States, I’d be happy to take a tour of some spooky town hosted by the informative guides behind Phantoms of History. But while Phantoms may be smart ghost hunting, it is not compelling television.

calling fink finley

Posted in Florida, orbs, photography on October 14, 2009 by Pat Padua

tampa theater, originally uploaded by a nameless yeast.

The most notorious haunted spaces are almost always associated with crime or tragedy – murders, hanging, disease, insanity. But sometimes a space is haunted simply by habit; the office worker who showed up diligently to work every day for decade after decade and finally passed away quietly, but whose spirit still lives on in these hallowed halls and such. Fink Finley’s is one of these spirits.
The Tampa Theater was built in 1926 and is one of the oldest continually-running movie palaces inthe country. The place has gone through changes over the years but was declared a Tampa landmark in 1988, and to judge by the sold-out audience at a vaudeville/silent movie program in August, when I took this picture, support is strong. Every town should have an old movie palace like this.

Foster “Fink” Finley was the projectionist at the Tampa Theater for over thirty years. He did not, as legend has it, die of a heart attack in the projection booth. According to theater docents, he succumbed at home. He is just one of the visitors said to haunt the Tampa Theater – a ghostly patron is said to be seen appearing and reappearing in the balcony.

We were walking around the theater before the vaudeville show was about to start and stopped in this hallway between balcony tiers. I saw a red figure down the stairwell moving through the viewfinder in my camera phone. But I didn’t see it with my eyes.
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