Monday, November 28, 2011

Mashing it up with a Pittsburgh Monster Kid

By Bratzilla
When it comes to phenomena that’ll brighten even the darkest days, there’s nothing quite like the twinkle in a Monster Kid’s eye. Fortunately, we were able to catch a glimpse of said sparkle firsthand when we sat down with the “mad creator” known as Malcolm Gittins, and talked about two of his favorite pastimes: ghouls and art.

First of all, I have to say that walking into Malcolm’s world is like stepping out of some kind of super awesome time machine into the 1960s—thanks, in no small part, to the rabidly extensive, yet carefully cultivated, collection of Aurora Monster models, Famous Monsters of Filmland covers, vintage movie posters, and scream queen autographs that he has on display in his museum-like living room. But, admittedly, it was the stuff in the black portfolios labeled “Art,” and tucked inside his endearingly cluttered desk, that we were really there to see. Why? Well, because, while they appear modest on the outside, dozens of wild portraits lurk impatiently inside. And, I tell you, they’re enough to make any fan scream with delight.

Yep, from Wolfman and Dracula to Frankenstein and his beautiful bride, Malcolm has not only painstakingly painted them all, but he’s also done so with the love of a child who just saw his first cloaked figure creep across the television screen the night before. Needless to say, the explosive celebrations of classic creatures and vibrant color that result from such passion are absolutely fangtastic, earning the artist genuine endorsements from the likes of “Chilly Billy” Cardille and the lovely Linnea Quigley, as well as a recent Rondo Award nomination. As it turns out, Malcom’s wickedly good art comes with a heart to match too, and we are thrilled to introduce you to him here.

Pittsburgh Exhumed (PE): When were you first “bitten” by a monster and what were the circumstances surrounding this deadly occasion?
Malcolm (MG): I was five years old when my big sister took me to see King Kong vs. Godzilla. I wasn’t the same after that! And, I can honestly say that whatever I was going to be when I “grew up” forever changed that day, too.

PE: What “possessed” you to create your first painting and what was the gruesome subject?
MG: I’ve been creating art for as long as I can remember, but the first monster I drew was the Wolfman, which was inspired by Famous Monsters of Filmland #99. That awesome cover was painted by Basil Gogos.

PE: When did you begin working fulltime as an artist and what prompted that decision?
MG: The first showing of my art was at the Pittsburgh Comicon 10 years ago. But the first time my art was seen by the public was on Bill Cardille’s Chiller Theatre in January of ’76. It was Linnea Quigley who suggested that I do something with my art.

PE: Now, for a little fiendish fun. What classic horror film scares you the most and why?
MG: I guess it would be The Pit and the Pendulum—it’s the first movie I remember that really scared me. Another would have to be Black Sabbath.

PE: Wolfman or Dracula?
MG: I give the edge to the Wolfman.

PE: Christopher Lee or Vincent Price?
MG: That’s a hard one, but since I got to meet Vincent Price, I’d have to pick him.

PE: Elvira or Vampira?
MG: That’s a tie! Both are sexy for different reasons, and there is a difference between them. But since I’ve met Elvira, I’ll pick her!

PE: You’ve been doing the convention circuit for quite some time and met a lot of famous people along the way. What was your most memorable experience?
MG: I’ve been going to cons for 30 years and I’ve been so lucky to have met so many people—none of whom I’d have ever thought I’d get to meet. But just to name a few … Caroline Munro, Veronica Carlson, David Hedison, Lara Parker, Brinke Stevens, Debbie Rochon, Linnea Quigley (see photo on left), Chilly Billy, Zacherley, Bob Burns, Erin Grey, Adam Wert, Pat Priest, Ben Chapman, Julie Adams, Ann Robinson, The Ghoul, Sarah Karloff, Chris Costello, and just so many more. I’m one very lucky Monster Kid, and I still get “star struck.”

PE: You have an extensive collection of memorabilia. When did you begin collecting and what are the five items that you cherish the most?
MG: My collection actually started with Famous Monsters #99, so that would be #1 on my list, but I have too many cool things to just pick five!

PE: What do you hope to inspire in others who view your paintings?
MG: I’m not sure I’ve ever inspired anyone, but I do get asked what medium I work in, how long I’ve been painting and what inspired me. I do tell people not to give up on their dreams.

P.S. As you can see, Malcolm is a humble man, so we will end with our own shameless plug on the artist’s behalf. As the holidays approach, and you start looking for the perfect gift for a ghoul on your list, visit his Facebook page to browse a spooktacular selection of creepy Christmas cards, prints and other ghastly goods that’ll revive any undead heart. You won’t be sorry!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Feeling the Rage of the Stage

By Bratzilla

After fumbling through the dark to reach the elusive South Park Theatre, our only regret in making the trek to see “The Hamiltons,” was that we hadn’t gone sooner. Part theatrical performance and part haunted house, this raw The Rage of the Stage Players production, filled with blood curdling screams and gritty violence, was way more terrifying than any horror film, and we loved it.

Based on the Butcher Brothers’ film of the same name, “The Hamiltons” intimately followed the exploits of a band of misfit orphan vampires just “trying to be an ordinary family.” As you can imagine, they fail miserably, and the members of this dysfunctional household end up creating all kinds of chaos in their community, engaging in blood baths, acts of torture and plenty of dirty, steamy sex (yes, ghouls, there was even nudity).

Reinforcing this juicy storyline, both the quality of the actors, and the behind-the-scenes direction by James Michael Shoberg that sparked the synergy between them, was excellent. From Jon Wolf who played the family’s black sheep, Francis Hamilton, and his geeky, yet bloodthirsty older brother David, the role of Harry Roth, to the incredibly twisted and sexy Goth vamp Darlene, portrayed by Samantha Kelley,and her excruciatingly volatile twin brother Wendell, expertly played by Vincent Anthony Bombara, each of the leads were fully engaged and believable – so much so that if we ever see them on the street, we’ll be sure to proceed with caution.

Of equal caliber as the principal players were the supporting actors and actresses, including Carrie Shoberg, who opened the play as a brutalized victim with a very healthy set of lungs; Deborah College, who played Darlene’s ill-fated “project” Kitty; Joseph Roots, who provided much-needed comic relief in his role as the family’s social worker; and, last but not least, the soulful Adrienne Fischer who, as Samantha Teal, dutifully served as a blood donor most of the night.

Also impressive was the set design and the way that The Rage of the Stage Players were able to a lot with what we assume was a limited budget. The Hamiltons’ house, while meticulously maintained by David, was just a little bit off with its creepily ordinary lacey curtains and silk flowers that young people living alone would probably never choose for their d├ęcor. In the far corners were a bedroom used by the younger siblings — the setting of several unsavory scenes in the case of Darlene and Wendell — and a torture chamber complete with a butcher table and the boarded up lair of the most mysterious family member, Lenny. The frequent scene changes, with additional props carried on and off stage in the dark, also kept the show varied and exciting. And finally, not be outdone, the special effects were pretty impressive, too – with no shortage of gushing blood, oozing wounds and other assorted gore.

Regrettably, we were only able to attend one of the last performances of this captivating show and weren’t able to promote the hell out of it during the full run. But the light at the end of the tunnel is that, while the Hamiltons have moved on, The Rage of the Stage Players aren’t going anywhere, and will hopefully be back with a new distraction for us soon. And, with their mission to “present original works of an alternative nature (black comedy, fantasy, horror, etc.) to a more mature audience, or to put forth established works, in an innovative way,” we can surely expect whatever it is to be dark, disturbing, or, at the very least, extremely weird.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Listening to the Groans of Ghouls on Midnight Radio

By Bratzilla
Since the clock struck midnight on Oct. 31, I have to admit that Brizblack and I have been experiencing quite a bit of Halloween withdrawal. Happily, we unearthed a cure last night when hordes of infected ghouls clawed their way through the earth in Downtown Pittsburgh and headed to Bricolage for the Zombie Apocalypse.

Convening at this gruesome oasis in a time when most other fiends around town have long packed away their holiday decorations, we were more than a little darkly delighted when we stepped into the Bricolage lobby to find cobwebs and twisted trees, a bright orange accent wall with the name of the theatre dripping with a black, tarry goo, freshly-dug (or, perhaps, freshly disturbed) graves, chocolate brains and rats, complementary spider and skull rings, and a zombification station. The reason for all of this? Simple. It set the scene for a radio parody of George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead.

Okay, I know, we’ve all seen the movie a million times. But trust me when I say that you’ve never seen it like this, and probably won’t again unless you get your rotting corpse over to Bricolage. With parts of the film projected on a screen behind them, the incredibly talented performers who make up this season’s Midnight Radio crew perfectly collide to put a raunchy, Mystery Science Theater 3000-style spin on the classic that even rabid fans would appreciate by creating quirky sounds effects and giving voice to all of the things you always wished Barbara, Johnny, Ben and the rest would say, but don’t.

But what really made us a cry in a good way were the commercial interludes that touted such apocalypse essentials as Mr. Clean (can it clean a bloody corpse, well of course!), Al Pacino’s “Scent of a Dead Woman” perfume, Cremation, and The Afterlife; fake breaking news from Monroeville Mall; creeptastic musical performances by Cello Fury; and a hilarious Pittsburgh-true performance of Aunt Mag – the yinzer next door who works on an antidote for a family member who’s craving “brains a’nat.”

And, of course, the night wouldn’t have been complete without a raucous Mad Lib reading, telling the sordid tale of a newborn zombie with the most disgusting words radio play-goers could muster pre-show (think milk steak and fungus). There was even an audience participation game show called Zombie Feud for which yours hauntingly was randomly selected to participate. Needless to say, this gore-obsessed gal cleaned haunted house and put her undead competitor in his ghoulish place.

Obviously, we’ve been bitten by the excitement of this show, and if you’re feeling the virus coursing through your veins too, we highly suggest that you lurk on over to the theatre tonight, Nov. 12, or next weekend, Nov. 18 and 19. Bricolage means “making artful use of what is at hand,” and by putting together an accessible performance that can make you laugh, cry and writhe with disgust, they have done just that. I, for one, can’t wait to see what kinds of terrors Midnight Radio comes up with next. But, until then, we congratulate them on creating one apocalypse we wish never had to end.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Lurking with Lon Chaney at Trinity Cathedral

By Bratzilla

While a church is an unseemly place for a horror film screening, this didn’t scare Trinity Cathedral. Perhaps it has to do with the fact that they are home to a spooky burial ground with plots dating back to 1797, but, whatever the reason, they have obviously embraced the inherent creepiness of their historic worship space, and created one of the coolest fundraisers ever: silent movies with live organ accompaniment (and kettle corn).

Held annually on the Friday before Halloween, this year’s event featured, we were assured by nationally-renowned organist Michael Britt, an original print of Phantom of the Opera with the indomitable Lon Chaney circa 1925. Needless to say, the turnout was great—with a good majority of the endearingly uncomfortable mahogany pews being filled with a motley congregation that even included a witch and—despite the 14-foot steel, glass and aluminum cross suspended above the altar—a vampire eating fun size candy bars and sipping on cider.

After a brief introduction by a member of the church, sadly alerting us to the fact that the late night burial ground tour was cancelled due to an unexpected case of docent pneumonia (at least it wasn’t the Red Death), Britt came out to set up the film, cautioning us that the original phantom composer was a mad and purely evil soul—unlike more modern adaptations that make the character more sympathetic. Then, after making a joke about the villain’s role in giving organists like him a bad rep, he sat down and began to play music both melancholy and dark.

A short time later, a cloaked and virtually nose-less Lon Chaney appeared on the altar, as the movie screen cast a glow in soft shades of black and white around his gruesome face. All the while, the organ played on, racing along with the action, no matter how terrible or benign, without a moment's pause. Monstrous shadows appearing on the walls as attendees got up to move around, perhaps giving their posteriors a much-needed rest from the tortuous wooden seats, added an extra dose of eeriness to the 1872 structure with its old and austere marble, stone and stained glass.

When the performance ended, we weren’t quite ready for the evening to end, so we extended our cathedral stay by lurking around the burial ground, which, by this time, was bathed in moonlight. Nestled in a courtyard beneath the church’s looming 200-foot spire, the graveyard and its odd assortment of memorials spanning the centuries immediately met all of our macabre expectations. And, while the darkness prevented us from reading the markers, and the chill kept us from lingering, the ground—originally used by Native Americans, the French at Fort Duquesne and the English at Fort Pitt—clearly revealed itself to be a remarkable site you just don’t go whistling past every day.

Luckily, neither we, nor you, need wait until next Halloween to do so, because the burial ground is open for tours any time of year on Sundays after the 10:30 a.m. service, or by appointment (email or call 412-232-6404). And, afterwards, because this gothic dream just keeps getting better, you can even time it so you can descend into the basement for a bite at Franktuary—which has one of the greatest selections of gourmet franks in da ‘Burgh. Mmmm … old graves and hot dogs: Now that’s a hauntingly good combination.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Battling Hordes of Pittsburgh Zombies at The ScareHouse

By Brizblack

Well, once again we saved what most people consider to be one of America’s scariest haunted houses for last. After another spine-tingling season that resulted in Bratzilla and me visiting too many local haunts to review, we wrapped things up at The ScareHouse, which had left us blood thirsty for more after an appropriately unpleasant visit last year.

While two of the three attractions (“The Forsaken” and “Delirium”) in The ScareHouse contained most of the same elements from 2010, a new ‘Burgh-focused “Pittsburgh Zombies” haunt was a welcome overhaul of the old steampunk-themed space, which was cool, but a little lighter on scares. Seeing our fellow yinzers as flesh-eating ghouls (one of them might have been our neighbor) and some of our most iconic sights—such as the Steelers proud Strip District—was an experience not to be missed by any fiend who loves the Steel City. Luckily, since they seem to cycle through attractions every two years, it stands to reason that this will be around in 2012 too.

Here is what keeps us going back to this impressive showpiece of Pittsburgh spookitude:

Scareativity – One of The ScareHouse’s greatest strengths is its “out-of-the-box” thinking on what makes something scary. From scene design to props and costumes, the scares that lurk inside the haunt don’t always come from the most obvious places, or when you expect them. In fact, just about everything becomes suspect in this place, where even a chair can make you feel uneasy!

Creative Reuse – The ScareHouse’s knack for using “found” items is not only a testament to their scareativity, but also to their ability to create a high-quality, high-detail haunt without having to buy everything new. Even monsters like to recycle, so I hope this trend catches on.

Makeup – Most, if not all, of the actors are painted up with ghastly results. Interacting with characters whose purposely not-so-good looks are achieved with makeup instead of masks is far more frightening because it enhances, rather than hides, the fearsome creatures in front of you.

Lighting – The use of lighting (and darkness) to intensify scare zones is also very skillful at The ScareHouse. There is good overall balance between scenes that are lit well enough to highlight detail alongside scenes of total darkness, which puts patrons on edge. Both lighting design methods were punctuated by the actors, who took advantage of times when their unfortunate visitors were distracted by a cool prop or clumsily feeling their way through the blackness.

At the end of a long, dark day, from the level of detail to the quality of the overall production, it is clear that The ScareHouse owners and employees take a lot of pride in their work, and, for that reason, I think we can continue to expect great and evil things as designers continue to improve and retool it, giving us new nightmares to face each year. Now, if only we could shorten those devilishly long lines …

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Going Old School Goth at Castle Blood

by Brizblack

Anyone who knows Bratzilla and me relatively well also know that we make no bones about the fact that Castle Blood is our favorite local haunt. We revere it not because it is the one we consider to be the scariest, the most intense or the most perfect, but because it embodies the heart, history and soul of classic horror. And, in the same way we love our ancient, gaseous hound of hell (okay, he’s a beagle), we have unconditionally loved the place since we first visited it way back in late October of 1998.

For us, a big part of what makes Castle Blood so special is its ability to capture the very essence of Halloween – you know, that feeling you get when you see an iconic glowing jack-o-lantern or a black cat. Gravely MacCabre and his denizens seem to accomplish this by skillfully combining gothic scenes, compelling storylines and a high level of interactivity to create a deeply personal, theatrical and darkly humorous “choose your own adventure” haunt experience. And, by some black magic, these elements also work seamlessly together to invoke a sense of nostalgia so strong it makes you feel as if you’ve stepped into a time machine and been transported back to the most magical moment of your youth.

So, at the risk of spreading my guts too thin, I’ll go ahead and gush a little more about the specifics that not only make Castle Blood our Best Fiend Forever, but also a place worthy of anticipation every year:

History – Castle Blood does classic horror like no other haunt in the area. Spending time in here is like hanging out on the set of a Hammer film, which is pretty much every monster enthusiast’s dream. Picture, if you will, torches, caskets, dust, skulls, pumpkins, tombstones, wrought iron, makeup, storylines that actually require you to pay attention, and set designs with a vintage feel, and you will have visualized a good bloody chunk of what makes Castle Blood one of a kind.

Acting – From the actors who take the tickets and manage the queue line to the tour guides and castle inhabitants, the entire cast carries out their roles creatively, passionately and expertly. You get the sense that each one knows his or her character intimately and, as a result, brings personality and a whole history to their roles that make them memorable. Bratzilla and I wished we could have spent an entire evening with Uncle Vlad, who is reminiscent of Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price and Christopher Lee.

Attention to detail – Everything in Castle Blood has a painstakingly handmade feel, and this goes a very long way in maintaining your sense of make believe. The aforementioned scene design, props, costumes, and makeup all keep within the gothic horror motif, reinforcing the world in which your journey takes place. When you look around, you only see ghoulish things that fit within the Castle Blood world, ensuring the kind of immersive experience that we all hope to have when we enter a haunt.

If ever there was a haunted house that existed first and foremost for the love of the craft, it is Castle Blood. And, like Chilly Billy Cardille, decaying steel mills, gloomy weather, and zombies, it is definitely an important part of our spooky western Pennsylvania heritage. So in addition to visiting other haunts that are touted as being scarier or more extreme, try taking take a trip to Beallsville for a change of pace. We swear on our unearthed graves you’ll be treated to an experience that you won’t soon forget!

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Scent of Rotting Flesh at Phipps Conservatory

by Bratzilla

“What the hell is so scary about a place that puts on flower shows,” you ask? Well, you’d be fiendishly surprised. Phipps Conservatory and Botanical Gardens—a magnificent and looming Victorian glasshouse situated in historic Schenley Park—not only has a ghastly glow after dark and a living mass of tangled tree limbs that fight each other to reach the light, but somewhere beneath the palms and between the ferns, at least one ghost has to exist in its elysian gardens, too.

Founded by Henry Phipps—a quiet, quirky old benefactor who gifted the structure to the city in 1893—the Conservatory may appear to have a pretty benign past at first glance, but look a little deeper and a few dark historical points creep to the surface. One of these falls into the “scary by association” category: Shipped via box car to Pittsburgh, the first stocked plants came all the way from the Chicago World’s Fair—an exhibition infamously plagued by the serial murders of one H.H. Holmes. The other is the suicide of George W. Burke, the superintendent of the Bureau of Parks who died in the original entrance in 1926 after suffering a nervous breakdown. While there have been no official reports of a haunting, it doesn’t mean that he, or anyone else for that matter, doesn’t still roam the grounds.

Beyond these spooky tidbits, Phipps—which interestingly enough used to be the venue for Fright Nights from 1986 to 1990—also happens to be in possession of the rare Corpse Flower (or Amorphophallus titanium, if you prefer), a native of the equatorial rainforests of Sumatra that smells like rotting flesh when it blooms. It hasn’t flowered yet, but when it does you better believe we’re going to be there. In the meantime, while they don’t hold a candle to Morticia Addams’ ravenous African strangler, you might also wish to visit the patch of carnivorous plants in the Discovery Garden, or the gothic After Dark ‘Black Pearl’ Orchid that was recently acquired by the Conservatory and put on display.

But seriously—whether there are apparitions and stinky, murderous flowers or not—Phipps is a remarkable place and always worth a visit no matter what kind of weird interests you have. Nature is a universal dead spirit lifter and we are lucky to have it preserved more prettily than a pickled brain here in our great city. For tour times, admission prices, upcoming events (including the Fall Flower Show on display Oct.13 – Nov. 6), please visit their website … and be sure to let us know if you see any ghosts.