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A Fanboy’s Notes: Terror in Topeka

It’s been 30 years since Jamie Lee Curtis discovered that some holidays are dangerous in “Halloween.”
by Dan Lybarger

As a proud native of Kansas’ capital, I have to admit that excitement and Topeka have little in common.

It’s true that Fred Phelps and his wacky followers provide a touch of black comedy, but Topeka thankfully has some terrific opportunities that film geeks would be fools to pass up.

For example, every year around Halloween, Grace Cathedral on Eighth Street presents scary silent movies, and Washburn University hosts the annual Kansas Silent Film Festival, which features classic movies accompanied by live musicians. Both of these events are free, so it’s a great way to learn about cinema history and even get entertained in the process.

A different sort of cinema celebration occurred last weekend at the Holiday Inn Holidome on Fairlawn. For the fourth year in a row, the Slash and Bash Horror Movie Festival treated viewers to new and classic horror offerings and honored three creepy films whose anniversaries just happened to occur this year.

I didn’t know about this event until KTKA-49 movie critic Keith Van
Sickle told me about it a few moths ago. But the events he promised were simply too good for an obsessive like me to resist.

With Night of the Living Dead turning 40 this year, The Exorcist turning 35 and John Carpenter’s Halloween reaching it’s 30th anniversary, Keith and his team had managed to get leading actors from all three films to make the trek to Kansas to present the films and tell viewers why the films still elicit shrieks.

Because horror is not one of my stronger genres, it took me a while to realize who was actually scheduled to come to town. Fortunately, Slash and Bash found leading players and thankfully did not invite the thespian who played “Fourth Man Taking a Shit.”

What the Zombie Girl Has to Teach Us
Kyra Schon came to represent Night of the Living Dead. If her name isn’t familiar, her face should be. In George A. Romero’s 1968 black-and-white zombie classic, she leaves an indelible impression as a nine-year-old girl who attacks her own parents after rising from her deathbed.

It has wound up being her only role, but just as Charles Laughton may be the only filmmaker who batted a thousand for making The Night of the Hunter and nothing else, it’s hard to think of how she can top the impression she makes in only five minutes of film.

Her stone face and lifeless eyes decorate most of the VHS and DVD boxes
for the film. Sadly, most of those are probably not the best ways to catch the movie. Because it fell into public domain, just about anybody can make a DVD of the film and not have to pay royalties.

As a side note, I should mention that only two home video editions have been made with Romero’s involvement and are actually worth paying your own money for. The Elite Entertainment version, which I own, also features scenes Romero’s commercials and a hysterically funny parody called Night of the Living Bread. The Dimension/Genius version features a new comprehensive “making of” documentary. Both versions have better sound and picture than the previous editions and actually look better than most prints. Romero and his crew were working with a low budget, but the photography and sound live up to their creepy potential when they are presented properly.

When I briefly had a chance to talk with her as she was signing autographs, Schon kindly took my questions, which I’m sure she’s fielded thousands of times. “There are no stupid questions,” she patiently replied. She sounded like some of the teachers I remembered from school.

That’s because she now teaches pottery classes for a living. When she presented the film, she talked about it as if she were talking to pupils, explaining that the film was a product of its time and that it was made for an even-then paltry sum. Most of the young viewers there had never seen the movie before. Having once caught a screening with a battered print with the most violent scenes excised, I was pleased the youngsters were finally able to see a clearer image and with all of the shocks intact.

You haven’t experienced a horror film until you’ve seen it in a hotel ballroom as the sound of kids screaming in the swimming pool echoes outside. It adds a creepy resonance that a conventional theater lacks.

Romero’s limited resources still work in the film’s favor. While the late Duane Jones is mesmerizing in the lead, there are no star performers, so you have trouble telling who the film’s heroes really are. My friend U.J. Lessing and I once had a long argument over whether Jones’ character Ben was smarter than Mr. Cooper (played by Schon’s father Karl Hardman, who also helped produce the film).

In the end we both agreed that either could have been right. Much of the strength of the film is that it shows that plain old human treachery is as dangerous as a zombie invasion.

Even though Schon was only a child when she made Night of the Living Dead, she has remarkably vivid memories. I’ve posted a cheesy video I shot of her Q&A session. I was too lazy to transcribe it and thought it might be more fun to see what I heard firsthand. The loud, obnoxious voice you hear on the recording is mine.

During some of my follow-up research, I discovered that she has a really detailed web site, which helps correct some of the errors that are floating about her on the Internet. For example, while Hardman was her real-life father, Marilyn Eastman who played Mrs. Cooper was not her actual mother. She includes a loving tribute to Jones and a link to watch Night of the Living Dead for free.

Whatever you do, do not copy any of the copyrighted content without her permission. She has a stern warning on the bottom of the site:

Violators will be prosecuted and eaten.

Halloween a Month Early
I didn’t get to talk as much with Charles Cyphers, who played the Sheriff trying to stop Michael Meyers' killing spree, or Nancy Loomis, who played Jamie Lee Curtis’ mischievous best friend.

When I told them how much I loved Assault on Precinct 13, in which both appeared, they both fondly recalled working on it and how director John Carpenter’s cast and crews frequently doubled up on tasks. Loomis joked that just about everyone on the set of Halloween wound up doing some leaf raking and that she handled wardrobe on Assault on Precinct 13 when she wasn’t playing a trapped secretary.

Unlike some fan
conventions where the talent resent being dragged to some backwater in order to help pay their bills, Cyphers, Loomis, and Schon actually seemed to enjoy being in Topeka. The hosts gave them a tour and treated them to one of the city’s better artery-clogging eateries.

The performers also seemed happy to meet each other. When Schon saw my recent vintage Halloween DVD, she wanted one just like it because loved the film and wanted a decent copy. Fortunately, Cyphers brought several with him. I told her about a cheaper one sitting on a vendor’s table, but she wasn’t going to settle on that point. Good for her.

As I watched Halloween for the first time with an audience (I first saw it on VHS at home, forgive me), I was struck by how a movie that was called the prototypical slasher movie was actually remarkably low in gore and violent incidents. What makes the film better than most of its imitators is that director John Carpenter put most of his effort into creating a creepy atmosphere instead of simply piling on the carnage.

His camera
seems to be stalking the characters, but it glides effortlessly with the grace of an underage Chinese gymnast.

Cyphers and Loomis have booth worked with Carpenter several times and had plenty of stories during their Q&A session.

Past, Present and Future Scares
I regret that I was only able to attend the final day of the festival and missed getting to meet Eileen Dietz, who performed the possession scenes in The Exorcist. The festival featured some local and independent horror offerings like Lief Jonker’s Darkness and some classics like the 1932 Bela Lugosi chiller White Zombie. For horror fans who didn’t want to turn their offspring into traumatized zombies, the festival offered Ghostbusters and Monster Squad.

The one set of independent offerings I encountered came from Lawrence, Kans.-based filmmaker Patrick Rea. In the short time he’s been
working in this area, Rea (shown here with his girlfriend Kristin) has made dozens of finely-crafted short films that combine genuine shocks with a menacing gallows humor. In addition to having a strong sense of how to shoot and edit his films, he also seems to know how to get the best out of the local acting pool. This was his third appearance at Slash and Bash.

In the interest of disclosure, I’ll admit that he frequently collaborates with my former Lawrence Journal-World editor and current close friend Jon Niccum. That said, I’m enclosing some links so that you can sample some of shorts for your self here. Be sure to check out his titles Next Caller (which played at Slash and Bash), Now That You're Dead, Torture Porn, Prisoner Exchange at Bannon's Lookout, Zero the Counter and Emergency Preparedness.

It’s a shame I wasn’t able to report on the event before it happened, but I can give you a heads up about next year. If you want to know more about what happened and what they might be doing later, go to their MySpace page at http://www.myspace.com/slashandbash. I have additional pictures up at my personal site at http://lybarger.hi5.com.


link directly to this feature at http://www.efilmcritic.com/feature.php?feature=2582
originally posted: 10/06/08 11:14:24
last updated: 10/07/08 15:36:38
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