Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Quick Takes: Mortuary Collection, Scare Me, Spiral, 32 Malasana St., Cleansing Hour

Most of movie watching time is spent on SHUDDER, the horror movie streaming channel by AMC that has finally found the right mix of rotating catalog classics, fun original programming, exclusive movies, and adequate corporate support to ensure it doesn't collapse like Fearnet or Chiller (R.I.P.). With the continued growth, they've been able to but better and more interesting horror movies, many of which are international and indie films you'd otherwise never see. The following five films are all Shudder originals. 

The Mortuary Collection is one bad-ass movie and probably the most fun I've had with horror movies all year. It's tone is all over the place, at times wickedly whimsical & humorous and then gory & horribly fiendish – but it all works. The acting and storytelling is exceptional. An almost unrecognizable Clancy Brown, as Mr. Dark, delivers his witty lines with a deeply resonate droll that reminded me of all the best TV horror hosts: "This house was built with all the modern conveniences...(pauses to acknowledge a clunky freight elevator)...for 1825." The production design is exemplary with dusty old gothic sets that establish the macabre tone for the wraparound story. This turns out to be rather twisted tale but is somewhat over stays its welcome. Nonetheless, all segments pay off in one way or another, which is surprising for an anthology. This is a true, dark delight for Halloween 2020.

Scare Me is a horror comedy with a unique blend of elements. It's funny enough and yet maintains an edge for the few moments of suspense. It succeeds mainly because of the incredibly likable and committed cast that pull off the impossible: they tell the story, rather than show it. It's a brilliant move for a low-budget film to have the sound design flesh out the storytelling. It's also a good glimpse at the screenwriting process where motives and character development lead the scenes rather than an implausible plot where characters are put in odd positions to move the film along. When the horror finally arrives, I was a bit sad to leave the fun time behind but this movie has a job to do. This is a very smart and entertaining, if slight film.

Spiral revolves around familiar cult/victim horror territory but centers the story on a mixed race gay couple with a teenage daughter. Representation matters so kudos for this. It's well shot, has great sound design & good performances but so much energy is spent on the journey that the destination is completely overlooked and unsatisfying. It's all portent and no payoff.

32 Malasana Street is a spooky Spanish period piece, well shot, with all the haunted house fixings and a committed cast that sells the anguish. The scares are effectively staged although they are all very familiar. Then comes the problematic clairvoyant and final reveal that are perhaps trying to address social issues and not exploit them but the result is really cringeworthy. Using freaks, as the film puts it, as fodder for horror is extremely passé in 2020 even when the movie is set in 1974. While I enjoyed much of the film, this alone makes me pass on recommending it.

The Cleansing Hour takes on the possession sub-genre and tries to alleviate its predictable confines. The demon is revealed early on and the action plays out over a live, real-time television broadcast. This adds both a new level of urgency as we see the time ticking away, and commentary on the consumption of media and self-absorbed personalities at the center. It's not a very frightening film, but there's some suspense in waiting to see what the demon does next. Even with this unique angle the plot wanes into a repetitive cycle. Then we get to that ending with one wacky reveal and a sinister finish that plays out over the credits. Did it jump the shark or did they bet the house on a risky, mind-blowing ending? I admire the verve.

Friday, October 30, 2020

Sam Saves Halloween!

Happy Halloween! What a long, long road to get to the darkest night of the year. This time of year certainly helps raise my spirits and this was especially needed now. Very few people decorated this year and my best guess is that they didn't want to invite little hands to their front door. But we refused to go dark. Halloween is more than just candy and trick 'r treating, and we wanted to ensure that our neighborhood had at least one gleaming house of horror. 

After debating how to hand out candy safely, all the experts said to avoid it. I made the brutal decision to declare: Sorry, No Candy. While this benefits our own household safety, it was really more for the kids and families that congregate in-front of our house every year. Last year we handed out candy to 423 trick 'r treaters, and each was accompanied by at least 2 parents or friends with each trick 'r treater so we estimated at least 1200 people on our driveway Halloween night. Even if we get a fraction of those this year, it's still too many people to try to socially distance and ensure they wear masks. We have to think of everyone's safety so we put up signs all month long. 

Our theme this year was "Sam Saves Halloween." Sam is the little trickster demon from the movie Trick 'r Treat who ensures that the rules of Halloween are obeyed – with deadly force if necessary. He has come to our house to unpack Halloween storage boxes and help Halloween come alive at our house. Take a look at some of my pictures and find more on my Halloween site:

I hope you have a scary and SAFE Halloween!

P.S. Midday on Friday, October 30 while I as giving a presentation on Dia de los Muertos, I received notice that I won the "Most Original" prize for the City of Santa Clara's Halloween Home Decorating contest! Woohoo! I'm so excited and honored to be recognized for my passion project, and grateful to the Santa Clara Cultural Committee. It will be a happy Halloween indeed.

A BOO from Me to You

We are here at the best times Halloween (on Saturday, with an extra hour for many of us due to daylight savings ending, and with a full moon) and the worst of times (pandemic, shelter in place). The darkest night of the year goes on anyway so celebrate it to the fullest. Here's a BOO from me to you:

The video features a clip from Sam Haynes brilliant new album, Groovy Murder Disco, available now everywhere (click the player below to listen now). Sam Haynes is an instrumental horror wave synth artist with some of the creepy-fun Halloween music. Find the complete catalog here:

Sam Haynes "Groovy Murder Disco" album cover

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

A Night on Magnolia Avenue

I'm currently a film studies student and my latest class explored filmmaking by actually making a film to explore the technical aspects from the inside. It's been a nightmare with COVID and don't have access to the fancy lab equipment, so I ended up postponing this class for later. But, I continued my own self-study using the book from class as well as various online learning tools. 

I asked the Scream Team to help me shoot a short at their fancy-spooky Victorian mansion. This worked out since Britta wanted a promo video for Halloween. In one week, Britta wrote the shooting script, we filmed it over 14 hours one Saturday, and then I edited it over the week. Just like that we had a  silly spooky short, learn a lot, and had fun making it. 

This was meant to be an educational experience and there was definitely a learning curve. I understand the need for a full crew as we all wore too many hats. I have a newfound respect for the industry and have seen first hand what it could be like "on set" with script problems, lack of equipment, working with passionate actors, and managing well-meaning producers. For my next amateur project, I will need to remember my biggest takeaways from this project:

  1. Polish the script before shooting and write in all possible actions, sounds, effects. 
  2. Storyboard all action and plan your shots.
  3. Block & rehearse well ahead of shooting to let actors work out their process.
  4. Shoot over several days & don’t exhaust the talent.
  5. Sound is key – use a boom mic & hire person dedicated just to sound.
  6. Learn video editing software well and feel comfortable with the basics.
  7. Slow down and get it right – you cannot fix it in post!
Without further ado, here is my first short: A Night on Magnolia Avenue.

Monday, October 26, 2020

Eerie Elegance Reimagined

I met my dear friend Britta Peterson while posting about Halloween books on my main site in 2010. I loved her book Enhanced Eerie Elegance and noted in the publication data that she was living in Santa Clara, CA where I had just bought a house. We met and have been friends ever since. We have even collaborated on projects as the Scream Team, alongside her husband Glen, a fearless engineer and mad scientist behind their technical wizardry of their home haunts. He tolerates my tomfoolery and happens to be a great guy with a sort of acceptable taste in horror movies. 

Her brand, Eerie Elegance, has been going through an evolution, and as a graphic designer I jumped the chance at taking a stab at her new logo. Even though she's was wary to give up control, rightfully so since she's been cultivating her brand for over two decades, she agreed to let me work my wicked magic. We came up with a great new look that I think will benefit her whimsical, spooky take on Halloween. 

Britta bought a dream house – a Victorian mansion – last Halloween and this year, we arranged for a spooky photo shoot.  I am very proud of this work and think the resulting images are quite stunning. Take a look at a few of my favorites:

You can find Britta at or follow her on Instagram or Facebook page where she has been documenting the remodeling of her Victorian Mansion. And of course, she has written three Halloween books that are quite fun.  

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Can You Spot All 40 Horror Movies?

This meme has been driving me nuts! There are 40 horror films represented in this image. I missed or could not identify 7. And I call myself a horror fan?! The answers are below (no peeking)! 

The answers are...




1. The Pumpkin - Halloween
2. Striped suit - Beetlejuice
3. Lips - Rocky Horror Picture Show
4. Red balloon - IT
5. Butterfly on lamp post - Silence of the Lambs
6. Tricycle - The Shining
7. Hockey mask - Friday the 13th
8. Paws in box - Gremlins
9. Pack against lamp post - Ghostbusters
10. Silhouette under lamp post - The Exorcist
11. Hand - The Addams Family
12. Castle - Dracula
13. Unraveled bandages - The Mummy
14. Mushnik's shop - Little Shop of Horrors
15. Biohazard sign on chimney - 28 Days Later
16. Headless man - Sleepy Hollow
17. Burning Statue - Wicker Man
18. Green frog comics - The Lost Boys
19. Stick symbol on tree - Blair Witch Project
20. Striped jumper in window -The Nightmare on Elm Street
21. Slaughtered lamb sign - An American Werewolf in London
22. Well - The Ring
23. Mask with red cheeks - Saw
24. Red door knob - The Sixth Sense
25. Bates Motel - Psycho
26. Mask on our octopus - Scream
27. Yellow road sign - Wolf Creek
28. Little doll in window - Chucky
29. Egg shaped object - Alien
30. Hand coming out of ground - Evil Dead
31. Cricket bat and shovel - Shaun of the Dead
32. Car - Christine
33. Mist - The Fog
34. Masked man - The Purge
35. Spider on tree - Arachnophobia
36. Angry mob on hill - Frankenstein
37. Girl with hands on TV - Poltergeist
38. House in background - The Amityville Horror
39. Box in window - Hellraiser
40. Doll on rocking chair - The Conjuring

Please note the octopus wearing the boxing gloves is the logo of the company that designed the picture: Mullenlowe Group.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

2020 Acquisitions for My Haunted Library

My Haunted Library is one of my prized possessions. With over 600 books in my collection, they cross multiple genres and include everything from Halloween history, cooking and crafts to scary movie companions, rare art books, and paranormal investigation. I add a handful every year, scouring Amazon, blogs and Twitter for updates on new releases. Here are some of my recent acquisitions for 2020:

Pumpkins and Party Themes
by Roxanne Rhoads
This book cleverly groups invitation, craft, pumpkin carving projects to explain how to carry a theme across a party.

Tricky Treats
By Vincent Amiel
A stunning hardcover book with recipes that cover all the courses with some really ghoulish recipes, like the eyeball truffles and syringe martini. 

The Wicked Baker
By Helena Garcia
This beautifully produced hardcover book is a wealth of creepy baking projects with gorgeous photos throughout. 

Fright Favorites
By David J. Skal
One of my favorite authors overviews 31 great horror movies giving historical context, photos and artwork. A really fun read for horror fans.

Trick ‘r Treat: Sam’s 10th Anniversary Collection
By Michael Dougherty & Various Artists
This hardcover book collects the previously release graphic novels into one wickedly delightful tome and those waiting for the movie sequel, its right in these pages.

World’s Scariest Places
By Michael Freeman
This compendium of some of the best haunted locations is chock full of photos and digest overviews – perfect for the paranormal enthusiast. 

Strange Frequencies
By Peter Bebergal
This is an absorbing read featuring stories of individuals at the crossroads of technology and metaphysical phenomenon. Can technology bridge the communication gap with the other side and really, should we be attempting this? (Thanks for gifting me this amazing read, Tarcher Perigree Books!)

Cursed Objects
By J.W. Ocker
A noteworthy collection of infamous things and their dreadful stories, filled with whimsical, monotone illustrations sure to appeal to teal fans. 

By Shannon Taggart
A large coffee-table book (now inexplicably out-of-print) is a celebration of spiritualism and features eerie images of mediums in trance states some with ectoplasm emissions.

Calling the Spirits: A History of Seances
By Lisa Morton
Another of my favorite authors impressively tackles the subject of communicating with the dead from its early instances to the rise of the Ouija board to the use of modern technology in use today. Fascinating!

The Library of Esoterica: Tarot
By Jessica Hundley, Johannes Fiebig, et al. 
This visual compendium of tarot art traces 600 years of history and tradition, explaining the meanings and the artwork used in cards. It’s a hefty tome to get lost into on a dark night. This is the first in a series. (Thank you Mike Mohebbi for this amazing gift. I will cherish it.)

Sunday, October 18, 2020

How To Make Tombstones

I've been wanting to make horror-themed tombstones for a long time, and working on Eerie Elegance's Day of the Dead display in 2015 gave me a lot of inspiration. I finally got started on my horror graveyard this year and plan to add a few tombstones every year! Here is my general overview of how I made my tombstones. While there's many techniques I've yet to learn, this was my starting point. Beyond the standard crafting supplies, I used the following:

Step 1: Plan the Design

First I looked through photos for inspiration and roughly sketched out the designs I wanted, keeping the lettering and embellishments in mind. Since this was a first-time project so I keep the design simple.

Step 2: Carve the Foam

I lightly drew on the foam with a Sharpie since I find it easiest to cover with paint. I didn't add too much pressure knowing you can leave an indented lines that won't be covered up easily. Using a foam cutter, I cut out the basic shape, knowing I would come back and refine that edge. 

Step 3: Add Standing Support

To help keep the tombstone upright, especially in windy conditions, the foam must be reinforced with a PVC pipe inserted into the vertical length of the tombstone. I created a channel for a PVC pipe in the center with a hot cutter and hot glued the pipe in place. I then hot glued two halves of the tombstone together creating a PVC sandwich. Later, I will hammer a galvanized metal rod into the ground, and slip this PVC pipe on it to keep the tombstone standing. Some add 2 PVC pipes for more support, but it makes it incredibly difficult to hammer rods in identical corresponding spots and angles. Instead, I bury the bottom of the tombstone in bark or dirt to help keep in place.

Step 4: Lettering, Embellishment & Texture

I didn't trust the spacing to my amateur hand-lettering skills, so I drew out my text on wax paper (a few times) then taped the paper to the foam. I used a wood-burning tool to trace the letters onto the foam right through the wax paper, removing any stuck on bits.

With the wood burning tool, I also added cracks to my tombstones and refined every straight-cut edge to make it look weather-beaten and more realistic.

For my embellishment, I placed a plastic hockey mask mounted on a ball of paper and used plaster to coat the entire thing, making sure to keep the mask details. Once dry, I hot glued it to the foam and stuck several wooden skewers through the back of the tombstone to keep the mask in place. I used lightweight spackle to the cover the front face of the foam in uneven, rough patches for more textural detail.

Step 5: Paint, Paint and More Paint

Painting took quite a few passes. The first pass was all light gray paint which I let dry completely. Then came the shading. I would first mist the tombstone with water using a spray pump, then sprayed dark umber in patches. I quickly added some dark green patches and misted the paint again. It blended and ran down the tombstone. I let it dry completely then repeated the process with some darker grey and lighter gray. I sprayed black paint in the letters and misted again to dilute the intensity. Afterwards I traced the letters with some diluted black paint. Once it was completely dry, I sprayed it with a matte sealer.


Foam cutters and woodburning tools get very hot and can be very dangerous– third degree burn dangerous. Proceed with caution and read instructions on your tools! And work in well-ventilated space.

Regular spray paint from the hardware store melts foam. Use a water-based, solvent-free paint, like craft paints. I'm a big fan of MTN's Water-Based spray paint. They are fully foam same, have deep, rich colors, and drys to a permanent water-resistant finish. 

Sunday, October 11, 2020

How to Make Plastic Pumpkins Come To Life

While I love carving real pumpkins, sometimes a cheap plastic pumpkin will do the job. Department, grocery and hardware stores all carry those orange blow-form beauties in all shapes and sizes but they can be a little lifeless. With a touch of paint and dry brushing you can easily transform a plastic pumpkin into something truly unique. Don't worry if you are not an artist. You will get great results because there's nothing complicated or exact about the technique. The best part is that its takes only a few minutes and you'll have them for years to come.

You will need:

  • Plastic or foam pumpkin
  • Liquitex Basics Red Oxide (dark red), Burnt Sienna (dark orange), Burnt Umber (dark brown) paints (any craft paint will do, but I love Liquitex colors)
  • Flat, wide orange nylon brush
  • Paper towels
  • Spray bottle with water
  • Spray matte varnish or spar urethane

The one minute video below shows you the simple technique:

Dry Brushing Tips

  • You want a very light, quick touch with the brush, adding very thin layers rather than thick coats.
  • You want to see some of the original orange color shine through so blending the colors by dabbing or lightly rubbing with a paper towel is essential.
  • Work on with small sections, adding various colors at once and blend. Once paint starts to dry, it won't blend. 
  • If brushes become wet, use a fresh, bone dry brush. I usually have a set of brushes ready to go. 
  • Use burnt umber along the ribs (vertical line segments) to really define the shape.
  • Let paint dry completely before applying varnish. The varnish will seal the paint which is important if you are using the pumpkins outside. Rain, water from the sprinklers and the sun will wear on the paint. Also, because plastic is flexible, paint might flake off if the pumpkins bump or get smashed in storage. Sealing the paint will help. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2020

Explore the Winchester Mystery House at Home

One of my favorite memories of San Jose, aside from living between two of its oldest cemeteries, was having the Winchester Mystery House a few blocks from our house. The immediate area is now home to two major malls (sorry, one is an open-air, upscale, urban center called Satan's Row, I think). It's difficult to imagine this as the orchard-filled, rural area Sarah Winchester retired to for isolation and quiet – and spiritual mysticism. 

"The Spirit House" as it's sometimes called is a stunning marvel of Victorian architecture and madness complete with a maze of over 500 rooms (160 rooms remain), 2000 doors (some with a steep drop), and10,000 windows (some with intricate web designs) sprawling across six acres.

I've been there for many tours and Halloween events, but the flashlight tour in 2008 left me a gasp. I was alone in the Grand Ballroom and witnessed a door open in front of me. I didn't think anything of it and  thought a docent would appear but they did not. I called one over and she immediately called a supervisor. The door should have been locked since there was an accounting paperwork in that closet. And during a tour of the basement I clearly saw a construction worker among the duct work and again didn't think much about it. Later the docent told us, the ghost of a man in worker overalls is seen there frequently.

The pandemic shuttered the house for the first time since 1923 when it was opened to the public, a year after Sarah's death. It's struggling like so many other organizations during this chaotic time. Lucky for us, they have created an Immersive 360º Tour for $8.99 (a fraction of the cost of an in-person tour). You get a subscription to the house and get to visit this virtual tour as often as you like. 

One of my favorite elements is a 3D model of the floor plan which they call "The Dollhouse." You get a bird's eye view of the entire house's interior and you can zoom into rooms for a closer look or click through a virtual walk-through. It's a stunning and unprecedented look at the house. 

Two books I recommend about the Winchester Mystery House are the souvenir book available only at the gift shop (or their online shop) which features 40 pages of photos and the special highlights covered on the tour. The book is a little dated, presumably produced before the organization fully leaned into the ghostly lore. If they put together a book today with stunning photography embracing this darker side, it would be a best seller (please note the gorgeous photo included at the top).

If you wanted to learn more about Mrs. Winchester, who was a compelling, pioneering woman ahead of her time, read the book Captive of the Labyrinth: Sarah L. Winchester, Heiress to the Rifle Fortune by Mary Jo Ignoffo. This biography is a deep dive into the Winchester family, Sarah's upbringing, the subsequent heartbreaking story, and the eventual move to the West Coast to create the mansion. Please note that fans of the ghostly business will not be pleased with this book. 

The author opens the book with the "haunted mansion" lore then quickly dismisses any further exploration of Mrs. Winchester's proclivities to spiritualism which was rampant at the time. There's a clear bias to distance the work from such "fanciful notions" and in doing so, the author willfully ignores much of Mrs. Winchester's widely reported interests from her later years. 

It's a shame. The house itself is full of beautifully bizarre architecture and structural details that communicate to people like me who love the paranormal that something unusual was definitely afoot on the property. We may never know the details of what Mrs. Winchester actually believed (until that lost secret diary is found buried in one of the walls) but I believe that she believed in something extraordinary. There in lies the mystery of the Winchester House.