A Feast of Fright: Recalling Burger King’s ‘nightmare’ sandwich

Halloween is my favorite holiday, and I miss it already.

Sure, I enjoy the “true” holiday season, but there’s just nothing like the spookiest night of the year. Now, staring down Election Day and Thanksgiving and Christmas, I thought I’d take a sec (after voting, of course) to repost this fun story I wrote for the Bainbridge Island Review about my experience with the Burger King “Nightmare King” Halloween promo sandwich.

Thanks for reading, everyone.


Nightmare

*Originally published in the Bainbridge Island Review, Oct. 2018 

They say its shade is an impossibly, unearthly green.

They say even brave men shudder at the sight of it.

They say it gives you nightmares.

No seriously, they really do that say that last one. As USA Today reported, “Burger King says its new sandwich is clinically proven to induce nightmares.”

Oh, Burger King, you had me at unearthly green.

An unapologetic sucker for gimmicky promotions (to which BK is no stranger, to be sure), I immediately marked my calendar, belly rumbling in anticipation, after first reading about this new Halloween-inspired sandwich with three kinds of meat and a ghostly green bun. I long for the days of Pepsi Blue, hadn’t been this excited since I first laid eyes on Kentucky Friend Chicken’s Double Down. I wallow in Americana. This, I thought, could be the next Hardee’s Most American Thickburger, but with quirky science replacing that gut-buster’s heavy serving of ironic patriotism.

Apparently, Burger King enlisted Paramount Trials and Florida Sleep & Neuro Diagnostic Services to test 100 people for 10 nights to prove their headline-snatching hypothesis. Scientists who worked on the study reported that eating the entire burger shortly before bed made it 3.5 times more likely that you’d have a nightmare, as supposedly proven by participant feedback and recorded brainwaves.

According to ABC News, “Dr. Jose Gabriel Medina, the study’s lead doctor, said the unique combination of proteins and cheese in the Nightmare King led to ‘an interruption of the subjects’ REM (Rapid Eye Movement) cycles, during which we experience the majority of our dreams.’”

The so-called “Nightmare King” consists of “a quarter pound of flame-grilled beef, a white meat crispy chicken fillet, melted American cheese, thick-cut bacon, creamy mayonnaise and onions on a glazed green sesame seed bun,” and it was unleashed in select stores Oct. 22.

Lucky for me, the closest BK to Bainbridge Island (19655 7th Ave. NE, in Poulsbo) also happened to be one of the select stores set to host this gastronomical grotesquerie (the consummate pro, I called ahead). I got it to go and ate it at home on Tuesday (while watching “Kitchen Nightmares,” seemed appropriate). It’s a fine enough fast-food sandwich, if a little dry. It is more than adequately salty, though, and I felt the need for a frightening amount of water afterward, if nothing else.

After, I swung by the aquatic center to cover the boys water polo match (a win over Roosevelt High), and then trekked back home to do some reading (Tom Hanks’ “Uncommon Type,” not exactly nightmare fuel) before calling it a day.

Of my dreams, I remember nothing.

Oh, well, maybe I didn’t eat it “shortly” enough before bed.

However, the true darkness at the heart of this Halloween promotion has nothing to do with the sandwich’s specious effects. You see, on the very same day that I saw the story about the upcoming “nightmare” burger promotion I also caught a fleeting glimpse, like a killer half-seen in a slasher movie just before he strikes, of my first Christmastime commercial of the year. It was more than a week before Halloween. And I don’t watch that much TV, so who knows how long ago this actually started?

Look, I know it’s a cliched complaint. It’s a grumpy old man thing to say (“Get your gingerbread off my lawn!”). I’m not even a Grinch, either. I actually like Christmas. But I’m starting to see where the green meanie was coming from.

When Christmas was a month long, I was fine with it. When Christmas began the day after Thanksgiving, I was fine with it. As it absorbed Turkey Day and New Year’s Eve, like a the famished Blob come from space to suck up all nearby holidays, I had no complaints.

But please, people, get your tidings of comfort and joy out of my Halloween.

We’re never going to make “them” stop pushing Christmas early, of course. The retail and commercial worlds depend too heavily on holiday revenue (such expenses are to the average person what the tab at last call is to a lush — less than real, a problem for the future), and in a harsh time of nasty headlines and hard truths the nostalgia and manufactured sense of community the most wonderful time of the year brings is downright alluring. I get it, I really do.

Thus, we must pace ourselves and protect that goodness.

In a world where everything is on demand and immediately available via streaming or download all the time, we will never again have to wait for the things we love, never again know anticipation. And isn’t that half the point? Isn’t the appeal of a holiday that it’s a special, fleeting thing?

Nobody wants egg nog in July. Candy corn in February is disgusting (it’s already kind of gross in October). Pumpkin spice in April? Get out of town.

Likewise, Christmas cannot be allowed to engorge to fill three months or we will all start to hate it, Grinch and Who alike.

So, this year, let’s agree to take each holiday in turn. Let Halloween be its own thing, channel your inner Ray Bradbury. It’s only one night a year, after all. And things will start to move pretty fast from here on in, folks. In no time at all we’ll be breaking out the holly and mistletoe, the lights, buying gifts, signing cards and (gasp) visiting relatives.

Now that’s nightmare fuel.

 

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Wow, thank you very much.

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Photo courtesy of Kitsap Daily News | Bainbridge Island Review editor Brian Kelly and yours truly pose with a sampling of our awards, won this year in the Better Newspaper Contest. 

I was truly honored to be named the 2018 Feature Writer of the Year in this year’s Better Newspaper Contest, sponsored by the Washington Newspaper Publishers Association. Thank you to all the judges and officials, it’s very gratifying to know my work resonated with people outside the Seattle area, too.

In total, the Kitsap News Group won 45 awards!

I took home seven awards myself, including first-place wins in Personality Profile (long) and Sports Personality Profile; and third-place wins for Business Feature Story, Comprehensive Coverage (single writer), Story on the Arts and News of the Weird.

Brian Kelly, the editor of the Bainbridge Island Review, and my mentor, won six awards, including first-place wins in Breaking News Story, Crime and Court Story, Front Page Design and Feature Photo (black and white).

The Review also placed second in the General Excellence category, which might have been the most exciting accolade of all!

You can read a full list of the group’s awards here (and see my short video Q&A with the regional editor. 

Thanks again to all the judges and readers. I’m so proud to be a journalist working in America today. It is a noble, important occupation.

 

Four more pairs of fine flicks

Originally published: The Bainbridge Island Review, Oct. 2018 

Given the two thumbs up several outspoken readers were kind enough to give my last double feature list (“The double feature is an American summertime screen staple: Review culture writer picks five pairs of movie mates,” Aug. 2018), I thought I’d take a second stab at this twofold topic.

Again, for those just joining our program, the name of the game is two great flicks that go great together. I love a well paired double feature and spend, admittedly, too much time considering and choosing candidates. Here are just a few more movies I think fit the plus-sized bill.

* Mild spoilers ahead

Awesome Animation Double Feature:

‘Perfect Blue’ (1997) and ‘Loving Vincent’ (2017)

If Brian De Palma directed a script by Philip K. Dick, set in 1990s Tokyo, and the resulting film was animated, it would be “Perfect Blue.” I’m not usually an anime fan, but this is a surreal, mind-bending masterpiece.

The film follows Mima, a member of a Japanese idol group, who retires from music to pursue an acting career. As she becomes a victim of stalking, with somebody writing a blog as her, apologizing to her disappointed fans, she starts to lose her perception of reality and fiction. Then, the people “she” writes bad things about end up dead. It’s cool and creepy and interesting and centers on an ambiguous, complicated female character, while simultaneously examining the artifice and rampant misogyny of the entertainment industry.

“Loving Vincent” is the first fully painted animated feature film. It’s beautiful and unique and sad, just like it’s subject: the life and work of Vincent van Gogh. Beginning one year after the artist’s suicide, a postman asks his son to deliver Van Gogh’s last letter to his brother, Theo. He finds the death suspicious, as merely weeks earlier Van Gogh claimed through letters that his mood was calm and normal.

Each of the film’s 65,000 frames is reportedly an individual oil painting on canvas, using the same technique as Van Gogh, created by a team of 125 painters. It won Best Animated Feature Film Award at the 30th European Film Awards in Berlin, and was nominated for Best Animated Feature at the 90th Academy Awards.

Evil Ernie Double Feature:

‘The Devil’s Rain’ (1975) and ‘Deadly Blessing’ (1981)

On paper, Ernest Borgnine should not have been a movie star.

The bulging eyes, the ponderous belly, the gap-toothed grin, and those eyebrows, man — all of it should have condemned the guy to a workaday career as a character actor at best.

But Ernie is mesmerizing. Be it in a true classic like “The Wild Bunch” or “The Poseidon Adventure,” or these two madcap movies, both which see the man who was Quinton McHale lead fiendish clans of ne’er-do-wells in scene-chomping, operatic performances that make Nicolas Cage look subtle, Borgnine brings it every time.

Like its star, the “The Devil’s Rain” is a film that defies logic. Directed by surrealist visionary Robert Fuest (“The Abominable Dr. Phibes”), with a cast includes William Shatner, Tom Skerritt, Eddie Albert, Ida Lupino and John Travolta, it boasts as its technical advisor Anton LaVey himself, founder of the Church of Satan. In it, Borgnine leads a pack of undead Satanists in a crusade to recapture a precious unholy book. The mood is tangible, the effects practical — and gonzo — and all the performances are stellar.

“Deadly Blessing” again sees Ernie in charge of a sinister sect, this time in Amish country. Directed by Wes Craven (father of Freddy Krueger), the movie follows Sharon Stone and Susan Buckner as they visit a friend who recently lost her husband in a farm accident. He was a former member of Borgnine’s simply dressed, technology-averse cult — the man’s own son, in fact — and her frightening father-in-law has made no bones about wanting her off the land and out of town.

Then, a mysterious figure begins killing cultists and city gals alike, and the space between myth and fact gets narrow. Brace yourself for the final five minutes, they’re a doozy.

Truly Strange Double Feature:

‘The Billboard Boys’ (2017) and ‘Demon House’ (2018)

We are living in a golden age of documentary filmmaking, no question. There’s a deluge of stranger-than-fiction features out there begging for your attendant — on screens big and small — but these two, I submit, are especially worthy.

Life in Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley circa 1982 was not fun. Economically, things were bad all over, but it was downright ugly in the Rust Belt. Rampant unemployment and general disenfranchisement with the American Dream made the perfect backdrop for one of the weirdest radio contests of all time, recounted perfectly in “The Billboard Boys.”

Three men, competing for a mobile home, lived side-by-side on a roadside billboard — sleeping in tents stocked with a portable toilet, a telephone and other bare necessities — with the last one down being named the winner. Simple enough, right? People expected this thing to last a few months, maybe. But then none of them came down. Time passed, a lot of time. Capturing international press attention, the haggard trio came to symbolize everything wrong with the country’s economic system — with the rigged game of life, even.

Then, things got weirder.

It’s a truly American tale, the kind of quirky real life story begging for a cinematic adaptation (one I’d like to see the Safdie brothers direct).

“Demon House,” directed and starring everybody’s favorite chest-puffing, spirit-abusing TV host Zak Bagans (the shouty one in “Ghost Adventures”), is a highway accident of a documentary you can’t stop watching. In it, Bagans buys a supposedly haunted house in Gary, Indiana, sight unseen (the notorious Ammons home), hoping to stage a thorough on-site investigation, interview people who have been affected by the ghostly goings-on and subject matter experts. What ultimately emerges, though, is much creepier than proof of demonic activity: The portrait of a zealot.

Bagans breezes past obvious possible contributing factors behind the “haunting,” allotting insultingly brief moments to issues like the emotional and psychological effects of systemic poverty, and the social support systems that have clearly failed many in that part of the state (similarities to the famous Enfield haunting are undeniable; why do ghosts hate poor people?). Large portions of the film are (admittedly well done) reenactments, and much of the captured “proof” is crew members acting weird or complaining of strange feelings. Never mind all that, says our host. Ghosts, bro! Bagans is frat boy Ahab in search of his demon whale, a man who (if he ever had any) has long since chest-bumped away his doubts.

Still, when viewed for solely entertainment purposes, the doc is addictively fascinating.

Know Jack Double Feature:

‘Revenge of the Creature’ (1955) and ‘Monster on the Campus’ (1958)

Jack Arnold is an unsung hero of American cinema whose time for reappraisal has come.

Called by the Los Angeles Times, “one of the finest, most resourceful B-picture directors ever,” he helmed more than his share of classics, including “It Came from Outer Space” (1953), “Creature from the Black Lagoon” (1954), “Tarantula” (1955), and “The Incredible Shrinking Man” (1957), among others. What might in lesser hands have been just more drive-in fodder is instantly elevated by Arnold’s atmospheric cinematography and a sophisticated handling of story.

Reportedly born on a kitchen table, the son of Russian immigrants, Arnold was at various times a member of the military Signal Corps, a pilot, an actor, a dancer, a documentarian. His movies almost always have a clear moralistic stance and blatant patriotic bent (perhaps the reason he has yet to be taken as seriously as he should), overcoming issues of budget and primitive effects to be inordinately captivating.

Filmmaker and author Jon Baxter said, “No imprint lingers so indelibly on the face of modern fantasy film as that of this obscure yet brilliant artist. All his films, no matter how tawdry, were marked with a brilliant personal vision.”

Good thing too, because for this Arnold-themed double feature I’ve chosen two of his more “tawdry” works.

“Revenge of the Creature” sees the titular scaly resident of the Black Lagoon finally captured and imprisoned in a Florida aquarium, from which he promptly escapes, wreaking the expected havoc. In light of the “Blackfish” controversy, and the ongoing discourse about the ethics of keeping animals in zoos, this unjustly dismissed sequel is worth a watch now more than ever.

“Monster on the Campus” is not a great movie, but it is a mesmerizing snapshot of bygone America and charming in that way only vintage sci-fi can manage. In it, a cardigan-clad professor turns into a killer Neanderthal after injecting himself with the irradiated blood of an ancient fish.

Because science, right?

Cult Love Double Feature:

“Split Image” (1982) and “The Invitation” (2015)

Mix up some Kool-Aid, film fans.

Actually, it was poison-laced Flavor Aid being downed during the tragedy at Jonestown, which occurred exactly 40 years ago this November. Cults are a timely topic these days, with a glut of documentaries, series and feature films making the rounds in pop culture. It’s no wonder. Cults tend to flourish in times of distress, when trust in government is low, reliable information is scarce or often in question, when more mainstream religions have failed to provide comfort and community, and people feel powerless and alone.

I dare say enjoying the future stories of the wackadoo (that’s a technical term, by the way) sects flourishing even now in the American hinterlands is reason enough to persevere through these draining times.

But, while you wait, check out these fine films.

“Split Image” is a playground of performances. Michael O’Keefe plays a clean-cut, all-American college athlete who is lured to a youth-oriented religious commune by the beautiful Karen “Mrs. Indiana Jones” Allen (can’t say I blame him there). He quickly falls under the sway of the uber creepy cult leader, played perfectly by Peter Fonda! His desperate parents turn to a supposedly professional “deprogrammer,” played as sublimely sleazy by James Woods, whose “cure” might be more traumatic than anything Fonda’s followers can dish out.

Also, keep an eye out for Brian Dennehy, because what movie doesn’t need a little of that guy?

“The Invitation” depicts the most tension-filled dinner party of all time, and there may or may not be something malicious at work.

Logan Marshall-Green (the poor man’s Tom Hardy) arrives at his former home at the invitation of his ex-wife, with his new girlfriend in tow, to attend a dinner party, having not been there since the divorce that followed the death of their young son.

Seems the ex and her new beau have just returned from an enlightening trip to Mexico and are eager to tell everybody about this group they joined there which works through grief using spiritual philosophy. Things get heavy quick and Marshall-Green begins to suspect his ex’s new friends are a cult planning a massive murder/suicide at the party. Or maybe it’s his own grief at work?

John Carroll Lynch, easily one of my favorite actors and capable of bone-chilling performances (see “Zodiac” (2007), gives a stellar show here, but it’s just one of the many amazing performances that make this movie exquisitely uncomfortable.

Speaking of Bigfoot: Inaugural Kitsap Sasquatch Symposium draws seekers, skeptics

*Originally published: Bainbridge Island Review, Aug. 2018 

Beyond the cling and clang of slot machines, past the large central bar, sports-slathered TV screens ablaze (if you reach the bathrooms you’ve gone too far) the exclamations of those both flush and bust faded and gave way to talk of a phenomenon much less certain than the house’s advantage.

There in the event center of The Point Casino & Hotel in Kingston, the reportedly first-ever Kitsap Sasquatch Symposium was both a more and simultaneously less serious affair than I expected.

The inaugural cryptid conference, held on Aug. 5, saw a nearly full house of attendees and featured six speakers of various backgrounds and expertises.

It was a professionally run operation all around, but a weirdly mixed bag mood-wise.

On the one hand, there were serious, academic discussions about Washington’s most elusive hominid. Some were clearly true believers come to congregate with their fellow faithful, others there for a lark (or perhaps drug along by a more excited acquaintance) — but nearly all were attentive and respectful.

On the other hand, there were goofy souvenirs and collectibles for sale, the predictable parade of silly shirts (though one man was rocking a seriously stylish Bigfoot-print cardigan sweater), a twangy lunchtime concert by the Live Night Crawlers (who even sang a Bigfoot hunting song) and a cocktail bar in the back, lest anyone forget we were in a casino.

Presentations ran the gamut science-wise as well.

Noted periodontist and longtime amateur Bigfoot researcher Judy Carroll recounted the evolution of a months-long “discussion” she’d been having with a supposed tribe of Sasquatch near a favorite hiking area, conducted with a kind of fluid symbolic glyph-based “language” of rock, stick and food arrangements.

Jeff Meldrum, a professor of Anatomy and Anthropology at Idaho State University, dissected key frames of the famous 1967 Patterson–Gimlin film, espousing at length and in great detail the specific scientific observations made possible by the contentious short and its importance in the history and lore of Bigfoot research.

Rich Germeau, a former sheriff’s deputy in La Push, recounted a dramatic personal Bigfoot interaction and discussed the possibility that the creatures may be able to “project” psychological power somehow, even manipulate humans for their own ends.

At one point, apparently frustrated by the scholarly tone of the gathering, a young man with female companion in tow walked out. He shouted, “Boring!” before letting the door slam shut behind him — gathering glares from several nearby note-taking members of the primarily enrapt audience.

We truly are a nation divided.

Though interest in the furry galoot so synonymous with the Evergreen State has never truly waned, and the tribe of believers count among them many true professional researchers of impeccable credentials, it’s an especially good time to be a contrarian in America these days, with Bigfoot believers just one of a growing roster of suddenly less-fringy factions.

In an article recounting his experiences at a recent conference devoted to “Ancient Aliens” (the incredibly popular History Channel “documentary” series) New York Times writer Steven Kurutz wrote that it is perhaps not unreasonable that, “Americans of the internet age have been in a mood to challenge established ideas.”

Behind the recent resurgence of the flat-earth theory, concern over chemtrails, continued insistence by many that global warming is a hoax and survivors of mass shootings being called crisis actors, and the appeal of the “Ancient Aliens” version of human evolution is a maddening tidbit of truth: History as we know it is far from complete.

“We now know that the history that had been taught for years excluded the experiences of so many (African-Americans, women, the working poor),” Kurutz wrote. “What else had been left out? Trust in the government and leaders who could set it all straight is historically low. And there are so many people ready to believe that aliens visited Earth before recorded history that some 10,000 attendees paid to visit this conference over three days.”

Likewise, about 200 people ponied up to secure a seat at the Sasquatch Symposium. But, be they skeptic or be they zealot, grizzled expert or fresh-faced nube, the desire that brings many to such gatherings has very little to do with the creature in question, said event organizer Patrick Lauerman.

“I think camaraderie and an exchange of ideas,” he said, when asked what he thought most guests hope to get out of the symposium.

“Most of these speakers … they have such incredible stories to tell because they’re so organic, they live and work in the Ho [Rain Forest] area. They’ve been exposed to what most of us buzz through or spend a day at. These people live there.

“If there’s going to be anybody exposed to a Bigfoot, it would be these guys.”

Lauerman was reportedly the booking agent for The Three Stooges for a number of years. He also repped Gumby and Pokey for two decades. Upon retiring, he made the acquaintance

of several prominent members of the Bigfoot community in Washington and, working closely with them, approached the casino about six months ago, he said, about holding a symposium in Kitsap.

He claims to be both an interested spectator and true believer.

“I’ve become more of a true believer, but the culture and the history … I’ve always been fascinated by history generally, so the history of this kind of just fit into my own mindset. I enjoy it.”

Maybe that’s all that matters.

I bought a book at the symposium: “Edges of Science” by Thom Powell. It’s a sequel to his oft-praised “The Locals,” described as a kind of Bigfoot primer for those looking to immerse themselves in the lore and culture. “Edges of Science” is supposedly the advanced course. It features a cover illustration depicting Bigfoot and a small extraterrestrial on a cliff, gazing at a flying saucer. I giddily laid my money down.

In the introduction, Powell writes: “It may be impossible to scientifically investigate paranormal events, but that does not mean paranormal events cannot or should not be scientifically investigated.”

That may not be quite as Kafkaesque as it sounds. I like the spirit of it. I like what the search for Bigfoot says about us as a people. It’s optimistic in a time when there seem to be few things worth being optimistic about — and even fewer true mysteries left to solve.

Full disclosure: In the interest of journalistic integrity, I must divulge that I’m a Sasquatch optimist. I’m Fox Mulder, people — I want to believe. But I just cannot shut down the Scully side of my brain. I suppose that’s for the best. Unwavering belief can be toxic. Truly unwavering belief finds you planting bombs in abortion clinics, or in line at a dirty commune in Guyana waiting for your cup of Flavor Aid.

However, from the relative safety of your own home (or the event center at the Point Casino) and sans sunglasses-sporting doom messiah, I’m with Mulder: The truth is out there. Why not look for it? Why not seek Sasquatch? How many of today’s givens would have been unthinkable not long ago?

In a world where there is water on Mars, our celebrity president is calling for an entirely new branch of government, driverless cars have claimed the first victim of the imminent A.I. war, and Roseanne got a reboot before Frasier, honestly, would “Bigfoot Proved Real” even crack the top 10 craziest headlines this month?

As I said, I like what the search for Bigfoot says about our culture.

Recently, I got to chat with Robert Michael Pyle, one of the foremost experts on, if not the actual creature, certainly the culture around Bigfoot. His seminal book “Where Bigfoot Walks: Crossing the Dark Divide” was brought back into print last year in a new, expanded second edition. I asked him about the seemingly eternal appeal of Bigfoot, and the perseverance in the face of doubt and skepticism that seems to fuel the searchers.

“Americans seem to have a fascination with wildness,” he said. “That comes from manifest destiny and constantly pushing westward. And when you get to the edge of the West, where do you go? Well, you push into other forms of the wild, which might be outer space and UFOs and that sort of thing, it might be virtual reality and computer realms, it might be supernatural and the paranormal for some people. Or, for many people it is the actual deeper wilds, wilderness areas.”

Right on.

Maybe the truth isn’t out there, but we’ll never know if we don’t look.

So I say go on and search, Sasquatch seekers. Go on, while there are still a few trees left and not every square inch of this cynical country gets perfect cell phone reception. There are still places even Amazon’s best drones can’t deliver to, after all. There are still places where the GPS won’t work. and a traveler needs a good map, a clear head and a solid pair of boots.

Way out there where the Ubers won’t go, the way can be rough.

And even if we never find the hairy hide-and-seek champ — even if the robots rise up and take over, or the sun burns out before our interest in the hunt does — we will at least end The Great Experiment knowing that America was still just a little bit wild.

Thankfully.

Double feature faves: Five pairs of movie mates for summer screening

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*Originally published: Bainbridge Island Review, Aug. 2018 

Though fewer drive-in theaters dot the landscape these days than in summers past, their primary product, the double bill, remains a good weather fixture in America’s pop culture collective conscience. There’s just something timeless, and truly American, about the idea of a whole night of entertainment in one location for the price of a single movie (and you never have to get up!).

There are even distinct separate parts to the celluloid ceremony, like a kind of movie mass: previews, the first show, intermission, more previews, the second show, amen. All rise.

I love a well paired double feature and spend, admittedly, too much time considering and choosing candidates. Lying in bed at night, while others are counting sheep, or making their way through a few pages of this or that book, trying to sneak up on sleep, I’m starring into the darkness wondering which two non-“Death Wish” performances best encapsulate the extremes of the very, very wide quality spectrum that is Charles Bronson’s inconsistent career? What order should they be shown in?

These are the things that keep me up at night.

You, however, can now benefit from my obsessive consideration. Here are five movie pairings I predict will go perfectly together, like popcorn and melted butter — or summertime and the drive-in.

Warning: There be spoilers ahead.

1. Undercover Trouble Double Feature:

‘To Live and Die in L.A.’” (1985) & ‘Cruising’ (1980)

The blurring of lines for a troubled undercover cop is a tried-and-true movie concept as delightfully familiar as will-they-won’t-they rom-coms (they will — almost always, but more on that later), and these two, both directed by William “The Exorcist” Friedkin, are some of the best of the breed.

“To Live and Die in L.A.” stars William Petersen as a United States Secret Service agent working as a counterfeit investigator in the City of Angels, hot on the trail of master counterfeiter/art-loving psychopath Willem Dafoe. When his partner gets killed, the roguish Petersen, who vows revenge no matter the means, is paired with straight-laced, by-the-book John Pankow.

A scheme develops wherein the two agents engage Dafoe, pretending to be bankers looking to hire him to make funny money. But the trouble really begins when, to get the startup cash, they themselves commit a serious crime. They quickly find themselves in over their heads, stuck between bad guys and their fellow enforcers of the law, with no easy way out.

Ebert gave it four out of four stars upon release, and even two decades later The Digital Fix called it “A sun-bleached study in corruption and soul-destroying brutality.”

“Cruising” is the kind of movie that would never get made today, for better or worse. It follows Al Pacino as an undercover NYPD cop on the trail of a serial killer targeting gay men, particularly those associated with the fetish/leather scene of the late ’70s.

It’s a hard watch at times, but a fascinating fever dream of a film. It was poorly received by critics, but performed OK at the box office, though the shooting itself and promotional events were dogged relentlessly by gay rights protesters who believed the film to be homophobic.

They’re weren’t totally wrong, honestly, but opinions about the movie (and its very strange closing scene) have only improved with time. Overall, it’s a fascinating cinematic relic of a time when Hollywood seemed somehow simultaneously much more and even less progressive than today.

*Alternate choice: For decidedly lighter fare, substitute “Point Break” (1991) for the second feature. It’s hard to hate life after watching that flick.

“Back off, Warchild. Seriously.”

———-

2. When Animals Attack Double Feature:

‘Deep Blue Sea’ (1999) & ‘Anaconda’ (1997)

Killer animal features say summer. Since “Jaws” came along in June of 1975 and changed the game forever, Americans have known that with the pleasures of fun and sun comes the very real possibility we might get devoured.

These two creature features, both starring aquatic-based man-eaters, are perfect together. They were first combined in my mind after reading comedian Patton Oswalt’s book “Silver Screen Fiend,” and the guy’s got a point: Both have at least a few genuinely creepy moments, surprisingly splendid special effects, likable enough casts, and random moments of meta-level sly genius.

Consider, in “Deep Blue Sea,” Sam Jackson’s, ahem, interrupted monologue? The scenes of uber-intelligent sharks stalking the water-filled passageways of the slowly sinking sea station? LL Cool J’s chef character is attacked in his half-flooded kitchen and hides in an oven — which the shark somehow turns on?

I could continue, but rest assured it’s delightful cheese, perfect for summer.

“Anaconda” is secretly pretty progressive. Two of the three leads are not white (the star is, in fact, the first Latin actress to earn over $1 million for a performance — not this one, admittedly); the good looking white leading man is taken out “Psycho”-style with much movie left to go; and the depiction of indigenous people and their legends is on the whole fairly respectful.

Jon Voight leans in so hard to his villainous role (and nonsensical accent) as to achieve Nicolas Cage-level hysteria — and that’s before we’re treated to a shot of him being eaten from inside the snake, an elastic tomb from which he’s promptly ejected, somehow still retaining the wherewithal to give JLo a (Lecherous? Conspiratorial? Playful?) wink.

Also, please note the great supporting performances by Owen Wilson, Jonathan Hyde and Danny “Machete” Trejo — three very different personalities not paired together nearly often enough.

I love this movie more than I should — more than anyone should, actually.

———

3. Retro Family Fun Double Feature

‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ (1988) & ‘Heavy Weights’ (1995)

Boy, they sure don’t make ‘em like this anymore … and maybe that’s a good thing?

These movies, both rated PG, show just how coddled kids today are … or maybe they show how far we’ve come in terms of what we’re willing to expose kids to. Either way, they are undeniable fun and, hard as it is believe upon a rewatch, both of these movies were legitimately aimed at children.

I must admit, I loved them. I was the right age for these two and have strong nostalgia fuzzies for them. However, viewed from 2018, they’re maybe not ideal kiddie fare (maybe PG-13, I think).

Alcoholism, seduction, infidelity, thinly veiled racism, murder and a legitimately frightening turn by Christopher Lloyd as Judge Doom combine into a potentially traumatic mocktail of child cinema joy in “Who Framed Roger Rabbit” (an obvious precursor to the upcoming puppet-noir caper “The Happytime Murders”), which sees Bob Hoskins’s toon-hating PI paired with the titular bunny, who is wrongly accused of murdering the man who was caught playing pat-a-cake with his infamously voluptuous wife.

The animation is awesome and truly holds up, the characters are all fun, and there is a genuine mystery here to be solved, convoluted as it may be (but, then again, look at Chandler’s stuff).

Our culture has made obvious progress in terms of calling out body shaming, and for however far left we have to go we are clearly not the same country that saw the premiere of “Heavy Weights.” That is a good thing, obviously.

That being said, the idea of a bunch of overweight preteen boys at fat camp being terrorized by a creepy fitness-obsessed counselor (a startling effective performance by Ben Stiller), ultimately banding together to defeat him and finding confidence and camaraderie along the way, is objectively hilarious.

It’s basically “One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest” for chubby kids and it is a timely and especially appropriate watch in the summer time. Also, it’s full of great life lessons like, “Don’t put Twinkies on your pizza.”

———–

4. Evil Within, Evil Without Double Feature

‘The Stuff’ (1985) & ‘Lifeforce’ (1985)

These are two of the least classifiable, most bizarre, utterly captivating horror films of the previous century. They both feature inhuman evils seeking to invade/feed on our bodies, one from outside our planet and one from within it.

Enough is never enough.

That’s the tagline for schlockmeister Larry Cohen’s satirical sci-fi horror movie “The Stuff,” though it could just as easily be our national motto, right? That’s intentional, as you’ll see.

In this film: A delicious mystery goo found bubbling up from the ground is marketed as a dessert and becomes a sensation. But The Stuff turns humans into zombie-like shells who only want to consume more of it, and quickly begins to take over the world.

It’s up to Michael Moriarty’s good old boy former G-Man, a remorseful advertising wiz, some random kid named Jason — and a cadre of heavily armed redneck militiamen led by Paul Sorvino to force America to wise up to the delicious danger.

This thing is “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” as seen through a fabulous ’80s filter. Themes of corporate greed, the duplicitous nature of advertising, the true powerlessness of federal regulations, and the dangers of group-think are explored in blinding neon wonderfulness.

“Lifeforce,” directed by Tobe “Texas Chainsaw Massacre” Hooper is about vampires from outer space. Yes, it’s a movie about vampires from another planet who arrive in ’80s London in the form of three “specimens” saved from a strange adrift space ship by well-meaning astronauts.

Most conspicuous among the aliens is Mathilda May (credited as “Space Girl,” I’m not kidding), a kind of queen/leader who spends most of the movie silent and nude and draining the life force (get it?) out of every human she encounters, energy which is then transmitted (somehow) back to her waiting ship, which is moving ever closer to Earth with the claiming of each victim.

It’s an alien invasion movie like you’ve never seen before, made by one of the great horror heroes of American cinema.

———

5. Summer Loving Double Feature

‘My Best Friend’s Wedding’ (1997) & ‘Grosse Pointe Blank’ (1997)

Two quirky romances released in a big year for the genre (“The English Patient” won Best Picture) and are both well worth a rewatch.

“My Best Friend’s Wedding” rewrote the rom-com happy ending, so says the AV Club’s Caroline Siede in her awesome essay on the film.

She’s right.

I used to be a little embarrassed about how much I enjoyed this Julia Roberts-starring fun flick, but I’m seeing now my gut was right: There’s more to this one.

Roberts learns her longtime best friend (and one-time hookup) is about to marry Cameron Diaz and freaks out. To make things worse, she’s (of course) the maid of honor/honorary best man, dutifully going about her obligations, all the while scheming about how to stop the wedding.

Going against the advice of her friend/editor (Rupert Everett — easily the highlight of the movie), who she has somehow convinced to pretend to be her fiancé in a misguided attempt to make the groom-to-be jealous, she confesses her feelings — and nothing happens. It’s brilliant.

As Siede wrote, it’s “something unique … a deconstruction of the romantic comedy genre that’s also a fully functioning, agreeably mainstream version of one. On the one hand [it] embraces rom-com tropes … On the other, it raises questions about what would actually happen if someone were to engage in rom-com behavior in the real world.”

Better still, clocking in at a surprisingly breezy 104 minutes, the film adheres to the advice on Everett’s answering machine: “Brevity is the order of the day.”

“Grosse Pointe Blank” stars John Cusack as an assassin going through a quarter-life crisis, who coincidental finds his latest job takes him back to his hometown at exactly the same time his 10-year high school reunion is going on.

He then finds himself reluctantly attending, trying to win back his lost love (Minnie Driver) and dodging murder attempts by his competitors — including a perfectly gonzo Dan Aykroyd.

This movie is bizarre and in no way should be as lovable as it is. At one point, Cusack confesses to Driver that he only abandoned her on prom night 10 years ago to protect her from his homicidal urges, the same “moral flexibility” that soon after got him singled out of Army basic training and placed in a hit man training program. Yet, somehow, because it’s good ol’ Lloyd Dobler, her ultimately sort of kind of agreeing to marry this serial killer seems like an applause-worthy ending.

It’s a hilarious, weird movie about returning home and facing up to the challenges of adulthood, all set to a killer soundtrack: Violent Femmes, The Clash, David Bowie, Queen, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Echo & the Bunnymen, the list — like Cusack’s character’s confirmed kills, I’m afraid — goes on.

Storybook Gothic returns to Horror Hill

“Witches Are For Burning,” the second tale in my ongoing Storybook Gothic series, was among the awesome offerings on the recent season finale of the dark fiction podcast Horror Hill.

Check it out here. 

Host/narrator Jason Hill did an incredible job (again) and I’m thrilled to a part of the show. His reading of the first story in the series, back in in April, was also very well done. It’s a great show and if you like horror/dark fantasy you owe it to yourself to check it out.

Many thanks to the fans who have been reaching out about how much they love Grizz and Pixie. I promise more installments in the series are on the way. Check back for details, or visit my website’s bibliography section for links to all my published fiction.

Take care, all.

Support ‘Scary Stories’ homage – Nasty nostalgia’s on the horizon, people

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Chilling Tales for Dark Nights is jumping into their first multiple author print venture, a deliciously creepy anthology homage to the beloved (and reviled) “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” series, and I’m super proud to be among the contributors.

Dig that concept art, courtesy of David Romero. It really takes me back. I was the exact right age for the original trilogy, written of course by Alvin Schwartz and featuring fearsome illustrations by Stephen Gammell. Pitching in a story for this project is pure retro/vintage/nostalgic joy.

There’s a kickstarter campaign going on now for those as excited as I am who are able to put up a little money now to support the project. All the info about release dates and supporter perks can be found there (they’re really cool).

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/craiggroshek/chilling-tales-for-dark-nights-a-scary-stories-col

Check it out and please consider kicking in what you can. There’s also a list of all the contributors there, a truly talented list that I am flattered to be a part of.

Thanks as always for reading, everyone. I’ve got some new stuff coming out soon in a few places, promise to keep you updated.

Stay scared!

Talking shop

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Recently had the chance to host the first of the newly returned Brown Bag Lunch events at Eagle Harbor Book Company on Bainbridge Island. That’s yours truly talking with author Maxim Loskutoff, whose debut short story collection “Come West and See” has been highly praised.

I enjoyed it very much and highly recommend the book – especially “Prey,” probably my fave of the bunch. He’s one to watch, that’s of sure.

Thanks to EHBC for asking me to host, and thanks to everyone who turned up to spend their lunch break with us. It was a great time, hope to do it again soon.

Thanks also to my buddy Nick Twietmeyer for the photo, I appreciate it.

Recent developments and ‘Hardcore’ good news

Wow, what a great few weeks it’s been for me. I want to thank all the readers/listeners who took the time to leave such nice comments about “Storybook Gothic,” recently featured on Season 1, Episode 9 of “Horror Hill.” 

Producer/narrator Jason did such a great job, I’m honored to be a part of the show. Clearly, the story resonated with people, which is the best feeling for any writer.

From YouTube:
“I LOVED STORYBOOK GOTHIC!”
“Dude, ‘Storybook Gothic’ was the best story I’ve heard in awhile! More of that please!”
“I was equally amused and disturbed by storybook gothic.”
“[Storybook Gothic] is absolutely INCREDIBLE!! So creative and fun, I’d love that to be a series.”

I even got a few emails from people who enjoyed the story:
“I have just finished listening to the Horror Hill Podcast featuring your story ‘Storybook Gothic” and WOW! I have listened to 100s of hours of horror fiction podcasts and I can easily say that this was my favorite story of all time. Original, engaging, super clever and so much fun. I really cant say enough good things about it. Please write more!” – Bruce

Thanks, Bruce. And thanks to everyone for the kind words. I’m so glad you enjoyed it.

As a matter of fact, it is the first in a planned series of stories featuring Grizz and Pixie. Check back soon for more info on where to find the latest installments (I’m finalizing the next 3-4 stories now; shout out to all my fellow procrastinators!).


In other news:

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Yes! “Year’s Best Hardcore Horror Vol. 3” is out now and it is awesome! I’m so privileged to be among the contributors to this stellar story collection. Thanks to editors Randy and Cheryl for letting me chip in.

“Burnt” was actually the first short story I ever sold (first appeared in “DOA III” in May 2017) and I’m humbled by the response it has received. It’s so surreal to see my name in a TOC among so many genre icons.

If you’ve got the guts, you can get a copy in paperback or e-book right now — and I understand there’s an audiobook version on the way, too.

That’s all for now, folks. Thanks again to everybody for their encouragement and support. It really means a lot. I’ve got a few new stories on the way in a few exciting places, and I’ll be posting that info as soon as I can.

Take care!

 

‘Storybook Gothic’ comes to Horror Hill

 

Storybook Gothic Illustration-JasonHill

Image courtesy of Jason Hill – The Simply Scary Podcast Network

I had some work featured on tonight’s episode of Horror Hill, a dark fiction audio show, part of The Simply Scary Podcast Network.

“Storybook Gothic” is a horror/noir/fairy tale, the debut appearance of homicide detectives Papa Grizzloski and Pixie Emberlight who, faced with solving a brutal murder, must seek the advice of a notorious criminal to bring a mad killer to justice before he strikes again. It’s a pulpy mashup love letter to two of my favorite authors: Neil Gaiman and Thomas Harris. I hope you enjoy it.

Check out that awesome original art too, courtesy of host / narrator Jason Hill. So cool!

He previously did an amazing job reading my story “‘Till the Road Runs Out,” and this is another stellar performance. I’m very thankful and flattered to be able to contribute a story to such a great show.

As if that were not enough, my story was featured as part of a double feature alongside “Please Subscribe” by Adam Cesare — he of “Video Night,” “Exponential” and “The Con Season” fame. Are you kidding? I love that guy’s stuff. To see my name up there next to his? It’s unreal.

Thanks again to everybody at the Simply Scary Podcast Network, especially Jason and executive producer Craig Groshek. I’m so thrilled to be a part of things.

You can find Horror Hill via the above link, on YouTube and just about anywhere else you find quality podcasts.

Stay scared!