Friday, August 25, 2023

Review: 'Gremlins 2' a hoot!

This week in Jack-o’-Lantern Press, we cap off our celebration of the Halloween hootenanny with movie reviewer Dan Cook’s take on perhaps one of the greatest monster gatherings ever put on celluloid. This review originally appeared as part of Cook’s month of March “Monster Movie Madness” slate of articles.

Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990)

Joe Dante’s 1984 horror comedy “Gremlins” is one of my all-time favorite Christmas movies, so I was very much looking forward to seeing its sequel. And the wait was most definitely worth it. 

While the original movie is a dark and twisted satire of the festive season with a surprising amount of violence and bloodshed, “Gremlins 2” instead serves as a light-hearted riff on everything from television, science, art, media empires and even cinema itself, while also ramping up the comedy and the slapstick, and it turns the funny but once creepy little blighters into comedic geniuses. 

Moving away from the quaint town of Kingston Falls, “Gremlins 2” sees the photoallergic beasts laying siege to a ludicrously advanced New York skyscraper where they pose a potentially serious hazard to the rest of the city if unleashed. 

The human cast, which includes returning regulars Phoebe Cates and Zach Gilligan, as well as some new faces such as John Glover, Haviland Morris, Robert Prosky and Christopher Lee, all do good and very humorous work here — particularly Lee, who shines here as Dr. Cushing Catheter, a mad biological scientist with a passion for both diseases and firearms. 

However, it is of course the cackling critters that steal the show, and every second spent with them is pure anarchic joy — from the crazy-eyed Daffy to the suave bespectacled “Brain” gremlin, hilariously voiced by Tony Randall. What an absolute treat to end my month of monster movie madness.

Dan Cook is a movie reviewer on Letterboxd, and he also posts his reviews on Facebook. He’s a self-proclaimed film fanatic, avid reader and retro gamer who lives in Dudley, England, with his wife, Sam, and their two daughters.

Thursday, August 24, 2023

Review: 'Van Helsing' not great, but great fun

This week in Jack-o’-Lantern Press, we’ve been enjoying the Halloween hootenanny. Today, movie reviewer Dan Cook puts a somewhat more recent monster mash-up under his microscope for examination.

Van Helsing (2004)

Having breathed new life into “The Mummy” with his critically panned yet highly profitable action double bill (1999, 2001), director Steven Sommers was then given the chance to resurrect the rest of Universal's most famous movie monsters. Thus was born “Van Helsing,” his 2004 CGI-heavy creature feature that may not have the best performances, visual effects or overall story, but is still a surprisingly entertaining throwback to the monster mash films of the ‘40s and ‘50s. 

Beginning with a highly effective black and white sequence depicting the awakening of Frankenstein’s inhuman creation (Shuler Hensley), the movie then gains color to follow Hugh Jackman’s titular antihero who has been tasked by the Vatican to rid the world of evil beings. With the help of a beautiful Romanian princess (Kate Beckinsale), an ingenious yet cowardly friar (David Wenham) and an arsenal of technologically advanced weaponry, Helsing journeys to the foggy climes of Transylvania where he must prevent Richard Roxburgh’s Count Dracula from unleashing a terrible fate on the human population. 

Roxburgh is clearly having a great deal of fun here playing the bloodthirsty vampire, and his flamboyant performance is a welcomed contrast to those of Jackman and Beckinsale whose supposed romantic chemistry is almost as unbelievable as their wavering accents. It’s a wonderfully over-the-top turn from the esteemed Australian actor and his melodramatic line delivery, which perfectly fits in with the exaggerated nature of the production design and hyper-realized narrative that attempts to blend elements of action, science fiction and horror with decidedly mixed results. 

Unfortunately, however, the talents of Roxburgh, the craft of the set designs and the visual excesses of Sommer’s gothic vision are often undermined by unconvincing computer effects, nonsensical editing, Jackman’s wholly uninteresting central performance and a plethora of two-dimensional archetypes who are given little to no character development or emotional motivation. 

The movie is far from perfect. In fact, it’s pretty damn rubbish and it’s not hard to see why. Even after 18 years, it continues to receive negative reviews from both audiences and critics. However, despite its many problems and against my better judgment, I found “Van Helsing” to be an affectionate, if not overlong tribute to the classic monster match-ups of old, and it should definitely appeal to those who, like myself, regularly enjoy the sight of actors such as Lon Chaney Jr. and Glenn Strange battling in the moonlight under many pounds of caustic make-up.

Dan Cook is a movie reviewer on Letterboxd, and he also posts his reviews on Facebook. He’s a self-proclaimed film fanatic, avid reader and retro gamer who lives in Dudley, England, with his wife, Sam, and their two daughters.

Wednesday, August 23, 2023

Music makes the difference

By Hal Hoot & Anne Eek Staff Hootenanny Writers

A recent Harvard study found that music improves your health and well-being. 

“Halloween Hootenanny,” then, the 1998 Halloween rock album from Zombie A Go-Go Records, featuring an opening track about the hootenanny from none other than horror host Zacherle, might actually cause harm.


According to monsters everywhere, “Halloween Hootenanny” is a great place to start when bringing monsters together for a ruckus good time.

Rob Zombie has a cool track on the album called “Halloween (She’s So Mean),” The Reverend Horton Heat offers a fun one called “The Halloween Dance,” and The Swingin’ Neckbreakers sing “No Costume, No Candy,” reminding trick-or-treaters about the all important rule of the costume. 

If relaxing music has the power to lower blood pressure and heart rate after physical exertion, as the said Harvard study indicated, improving mood and reducing anxiety through bringing people together, ultimately serving as an antidote to loneliness and social isolation, then “Halloween Hootenanny” should ramp up those anxieties and help bring more monsters to you, ultimately serving as an antidote to your safety and also social isolation.

Check it out now on Spotify, on YouTube, or wherever else you might find music.

Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Podcast: Bring monsters home!

By Hal Hoot & Anne Eek

Staff Hootenanny Writers

No Halloween Hootenanny is complete without a gang of monsters. Check out this classic episode of the Jack-o’-Lantern Press Podcast, where Mike and Tom talk about their favorite monsters of all time.

This is episode 8 of the podcast. Enjoy! Then tell us about your favorite monsters. Email us at or call our Pumpkin Hotline at 323-761-0276. 

Monday, August 21, 2023

Summon monsters for a ‘hoot!’

By Hal Hoot & Anne Eek

Staff Hootenanny Writers

This week in Jack-o’-Lantern Press, we’ll be shining a little shadow on Halloween Hootenannies — the monster party! 

We begin today with words to actually summon monsters to come out and play. It’s the words from the 1983 film “Cujo” that little Tad and his dad used to keep monsters out of Tad’s bedroom.

These words are powerful. Go ahead, read them aloud and host your own Halloween hootenanny …

“Monsters, stay out of this room! You have no business here. No monsters under Tad’s bed! You can’t fit under there. No monsters hiding in Tad’s closet! It’s too small in there. No monsters outside of Tad’s window! You can’t hold on out there. No vampires, no werewolves, no things that bite! You have no business here. Nothing will touch Tad, or hurt Tad, all this night. You have no business here!”

Let the hootenannies begin!

Friday, August 18, 2023

Scary Stories: 'Alligators'

This week in Jack-o’-Lantern Press, we’ve been exploring fearful fathoms of the deep. But the dangers aren’t just in the sea. Deadly things also lurk in that little river near your home. No alligators in your neck of the woods, you say? Don’t be so sure. Check out this terrifying tale from Scary Story Society:

Thursday, August 17, 2023

Review: A terrifying tale birthed a cinephile

This week in Jack-o’-Lantern Press, we’ve been in the water. Today, movie reviewer Dan Cook investigates the fish that’s kept so many beachgoers out of the water since 1975.

Jaws (1975)

When I was a child, there was a medium-sized video shelf in the corner of our living room, home to around 50 or 60 different cassette tapes of many different genres and age ratings. Numerous titles intrigued me such as “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Alien” and “The Color Purple,” but none stirred my imagination as much as “Jaws.” I didn't know anything about the film whatsoever, but I certainly remember the video cover having an immediate effect on me; the silver, holographic capital lettering over an image of a terrifying great white shark set against a backdrop of darkest ultramarine.

One windy night, my parents were watching a movie and I could hear the ominous two-tone ostinato of the “Jaws” theme tune thundering from below me. Not being able to sleep due to the noise, I came downstairs for a bit of company and solace. I walked into the living room and sat down on my father’s knee to watch the movie along with them. I was very much enjoying the film until one unexpected scene terrified me beyond all belief, the bloody and horrific death of the young Alex Kintner. As soon as the shark attacked and a fountain of blood turned the blue New England ocean red, I bolted behind the arm of the nearest sofa and refused to watch any more of the film whilst wiping away tears from my eyes and shaking with uncontrollable fright. For years, the idea of watching “Jaws” would send shivers up my spine. It stayed in my dreams and haunted my nightmares, and even after six months of watching the picture, I would quake every time I walked past the unmistakable VHS box that would twinkle in the light of our living room. 

Around five years later, I had joined a boarding school in the beautiful cathedral city of Lichfield, and every Saturday, I was able to go into the center on a weekend and explore the numerous shops for a few hours. One day, I walked into the local branch of Woolworths and, just as I always did, I went straight to the hallowed DVD aisle to check out the new releases. It was on that life-changing day that I saw a copy of “Jaws” on sale for £3. I had gone with a group of older boys as I was too young to go into the city on my own, and they noticed the dreaded DVD at the same time I did. Being of an appropriate age, they purchased the 12 rated feature and took it straight back to the boarding school common room to watch. I hadn’t seen “Jaws” since the incident five years earlier, and I had forgotten many of the parts that had scared me so much as a young boy. However, I braved it. I nervously sat down and watched the movie with the older boys and, just like before, the exact same moment of unflinchingly realistic death scared the living daylights out of me.

This time however, instead of averting my eyes from the bloodshed, I was awestruck by its perverse beauty, and I watched the rest of the film in a hypnotic, open-mouthed daze. Upon reaching the end credits, I came to the realization that I had watched the first true masterpiece of my life and that I had also acquired a new favorite movie. The following weekend I gave my older friend the money to buy me a copy of “Jaws” (a treasured artifact I still own to this day) and from that day forward, I would watch “Jaws” at least twice a month and quickly learn how recite the film word for word.

For many years now, I have wondered to myself, What is it that makes “Jaws” my favorite film? Could it be the fact that it had such a strong effect on me as a child? Could it be the fact that it was the first film I recognized as a true magnum opus? Well, after much careful deliberation and many sleepless nights pondering the subject, I have come to the decision that it is truly impossible to say why this is, as “Jaws” is a wonderful jigsaw puzzle of many different elements that come together to create an indelible piece of art. It is the music, it’s the setting, it's the cinematography, it’s the cast, it’s the script — everything that went into the making of “Jaws” is pitch-perfect and has, for me, yet to be matched. Spawning the modern blockbuster, the movie would go on to become the highest grossing motion picture of all time and would quickly be recognized as one of the greatest ever made in countless polls, surveys and studies. 

But why did “Jaws” become such a cultural phenomenon whilst other high budgeted “B” movies of the day fell by the wayside? The horror landscape at that time was practically dominated by the embryonic and increasingly grotesque slasher sub-genre while America itself was recovering from the aftermath of the recently ended and hugely unpopular Vietnam war. Surely the public wasn't ready for such a nihilistic tale being pumped into nationwide cinemas after they had already had their fair share of bloodshed. In the midst of such variables, “Jaws” was destined to be a flop. In fact, if the testimonies from the existing cast and crew are anything to go by, everyone involved in the making of the damn picture thought it was going to tank, too. Not only were there major production problems throughout, such as a soon-to-expire SAG contract, a very demanding distribution company throwing orders around left, right and center, a $3.5 million budget that was spiraling madly out of control, and the eye of a then-amateur director pulling the strings, but worst of all, encapsulating the calamity that was the making of “Jaws,” there was Bruce, a giant robotic shark that just would not work. No shark meant no movie!

“Jaws” was only Steven Spielberg’s second theatrical motion picture, the first being the wonderful 1974 neo-noir drama “Sugarland Express,” which starred Goldie Hawn and Ben Johnson. Made for Universal for a relatively small budget, “Sugarland” would prove to studio executives that Spielberg had a knack for money making, with the movie quadrupling its costs at the box office. But while “Sugarland” certainly proved to be a critical success and a minor financial boom for the company, it was still a very risky move on the part of Universal to hire the 21-year-old Spielberg to direct their first truly mega-budget bonanza. The most profitable films at that time were being made by older and more reputable directors such as William Friedkin, Francis Ford Coppola and Robert Wise; filmmakers who had garnered both critical and commercial acclaim, thanks to their innovation and cinematic prowess. So it was a great gamble for the world-famous production behemoth to allow such an inexperienced filmmaker to take the reins of one of their most expensive projects to date, which itself was based on a popular yet unremarkable potboiler of a novel by pulp writer Peter Benchley. Of course, with its major on- and off-screen catastrophes, Universal would quickly discover that “Jaws” would be their most problematic production to date and as it would inevitably turn out, the film ended up being finished 120 days over its intended schedule, $6 million over budget, and Spielberg would be constantly tiptoeing around unemployment time and time and time again.

So why is it that, despite all of its major flaws and almost fatal production disasters, “Jaws” still remains one of the most highly respected motion pictures ever made? Set on the fictional island of Amity, the film tells the story of a giant great white shark hunting beachgoers and the efforts of its townsfolk to kill it. In this sense, “Jaws” is a very typical monster movie, going through the same motions as other classic “B” movies such as “Creature from the Black Lagoon,” “Them”' and “Tarantula,” films which put man against seemingly unstoppable aberrations of nature. But where “Jaws” succeeds while others so miserably failed is in its unprecedented levels of realism and character. 

A large majority of the creature features of the age spent their running times showing their respective monsters far too much while putting performance, character, setting, atmosphere and general common sense second. They also lacked any air of horror whatsoever, reverting to very typical scare techniques such as jump scares, slow build-up and a woman screaming at every single possible opportunity. “Jaws,” on the other hand, still terrifies to this day because it takes its horror deadly seriously. While many remember the bloodless death of Chrissie Watkins or the nightmare-inducing demise of the aforementioned Alex on the lilo, people forget that “Jaws” is actually a very visceral movie with a surprising level of gore. Children are dragged underwater accompanied by a scarlet plume of blood, a mangled corpse is seen during an autopsy and a recently severed leg is seen sinking to the bottom of the sea complete with bone and distended viscera — strong images for a so-called “PG- rated” film! At the time I watched “Jaws” in its entirety for the first time, I was something of a horror coward, and I remember at the time being very proud of myself that I had subjected myself to such graphic sequences and unabashed violence. Being brought up on Disney animation, I was never subjected to true horror movies except for the classic Hammer films, which my Dad and I would watch religiously whenever they aired on TV. “Jaws” was the first true shocker I had ever voluntarily watched, and the indelible effect that it had on me would set me down a path toward an undying love for the entire genre, as well as an undisclosed passion for cheesy creature features.

While “Jaws” is remembered fondly as a full-blooded horror movie, it is also rightly recognized for its talent in front of and behind the camera — and for good reason. Its cast is easily one of the most accomplished ever featured in a blockbuster. At the heart of the picture is Roy Scheider's Martin Brody, an aquaphobic police chief whose determination to seek redemption from the agnostic authority of his townspeople — personified brilliantly by Murray Hamilton’s reluctant Mayor Larry Vaughn — leads him to face his fears with unabated courage and forcefulness. Best known at the time for his role in Friedkin's 1971 best-picture-winner “The French Connection,” Scheider was an actor of indeterminable talent, and while the shark may steal the show, it is his pivotal central performance that anchors the heart of the narrative. Alongside Scheider, we have Richard Dreyfuss as oceanographer Matt Hooper, a knowledgeable shark expert who shares a psychological kinship with all of the creatures of the deep. Completing the trio we have Robert Shaw as Quint, the obsessive and compulsive shark hunter who is hired by the island of Amity to kill its carnivorous assailant. 

Both Scheider and Dreyfuss deliver terrific performances, but as much as I enjoy their roles, it is Shaw's Ahab-like Quint who is the true star of “Jaws.” A maelstrom of gruffness, anger and near psychotic relentlessness, Quint is the perfect antithesis to both Hooper's naive optimism and Scheider's understandable fear, and every second of his screen time from his ear-splitting entrance to his gory and brutal end is magnetic, mercurial and simply mesmerizing. To this day, I am still shocked and quite disgusted that Shaw didn't get a nomination for best supporting actor at the 1975 Academy Awards, as he gives a startling performance, which is not only the best of his illustrious career, but one of the best ever delivered by any actor ever. 

Behind the camera was an expert team of writers, set designers and a cinematographer who all worked their absolute hardest to make “Jaw”' the best it could possibly be. Utilizing the beautiful settings of Martha's Vineyard to wonderful effect, director of photography Bill Butler shrouds Amity Island in a pastel suburban normality, perfectly matching the ocean and sky setting that our trio of heroes will eventually find themselves in. The blues and whites of its architecture perfectly encapsulate the essence and feeling of a typical coastal town, and while it is set in the United States, the atmosphere and ambience is reminiscent of the Great British coast with brass bands a plenty, seagulls picking up scraps of food left carelessly on the sand, and holiday-makers flocking to the sea whenever the sun decides to rear its head. Much is written about “Jaws,” but rarely is credit given to Butler for his work. For me however, he is the unsung hero of the entire movie, and just as much attention should be drawn to the way the film looks, as it is to the way it sounds. 

Written by Carl Gottlieb, the screenplay for “Jaws” (which went through several rewrites and authors, including Peter Benchley himself) is incredibly smart — dispensing with wit or soliloquy and replacing it with true-to-life conversation and realistic banter. Instead of trying to make his characters unbelievably hip and cool for younger audiences, Gottlieb goes for a much simpler approach, writing believable dialogue that allows his characters to have unique yet realistic personalities. That’s not to say that the movie doesn’t have its lighter moments and indeed, there are numerous sequences — in particular the scene in which Hooper and Quint gleefully compare scars, which never fails to make me laugh. But for the most part, it is a grounded and economic screenplay whose realism makes it that much more memorable and timeless. Ironically, while so many of Gottleib’s lines are iconic, the films most famous, “You're gonna need a bigger boat!” was in fact an on-set ad-lib from Roy Scheider rather than a methodically thought-out piece of screenwriting genius. 

We all know the trademark dum-dum-dum-dum of the “Jaws” theme, but many forget the other truly brilliant musical accompaniments John Williams wrote for the movie, such as “One Barrel Chase” and “Hand To Hand Combat” — compositions that fit the film perfectly yet are highly listenable when heard in isolation. As Spielberg often says, “John provided the shark I didn’t have.” And it's true that without the genius of Williams, “Jaws” wouldn’t be half as evocative, half as intense or half as terrifying. How many villainous theme tunes consist of literally two notes? That’s the magic of John Williams and it’s just one of the many reasons he remains the most popular modern movie composer. 

A prolific cast and accomplished crew is all well and good, but at the end of the day, a monster movie is only as good as its monster. When I was lyrical about “Jaws,” people inevitably would complain that the shark looks fake, and while true, this never fails to heat my blood to near boiling point. Of course it does! it was 1975, how the hell were they supposed to make a completely convincing robot shark? The technology just didn't exist at the time. But in reality, the rubber shark designed by animatronic legend Bob Mattey, who previously made the giant squid puppet for Disney’s epic “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” did give a pretty good performance when it made its few appearances on screen. As expected with a movie made nearly 40 years ago, there are a few times when the special effects don’t hold up so well, but for the most part, Bruce, famously named after Spielberg’s lawyer, is convincing and absolutely terrifying, with the July 4th estuary death sequence proving to be the shark’s most nightmarish scene by some distance.

Despite its immeasurable shopping list of problems and an almost undying view that the film was bound to sink just as much as his useless mechanical fish, Steven Spielberg had the last laugh. A combination of nail-biting thrills, beautifully executed horror and wonderfully rounded characters was far too good to turn down, and the general public thirsted for more. Making $400 million at the worldwide box office, “Jaws” became the highest-grossing movie on the planet and earned four Academy Award nominations, including best picture. It created the template for the modern blockbuster, and thanks to an ingenious marketing campaign, the film became a global phenomenon. While they may have had unfounded doubts about the director’s talent beforehand, Universal would go on to hire Spielberg for many more productions in the future, including “E.T : The Extra Terrestrial” and “Jurassic Park,” both of which would become the most profitable movies of all time upon their respective releases. 

With heart-pumping tension, nerve-jangling horror and the greatest trio of actors ever to grace a silver screen together, “Jaws” is a movie that will last forever. It is an extraordinary melding of a fun, yet flawed book, a growing director who would soon be known as one the greatest, one of the most iconic soundtracks ever written, and the undying power of self belief. Spawning three admittedly rubbish sequels and a merchandising empire rivaling that of George Lucas himself, “Jaws” continues to make millions of dollars a year and scare thousands of new fans young and old every day. But for all of its success, “Jaws” was never really about money. It is, in the words of Spielberg himself, ''courage and stupidity existing underwater!'' and it is, without any question, my favorite movie of all time. Oh, and for the record, Dr. Kermode, it’s also demonstrably about a shark. 

Dan Cook is a movie reviewer on Letterboxd, and he also posts his reviews on Facebook. He’s a self-proclaimed film fanatic, avid reader and retro gamer who lives in Dudley, England, with his wife, Sam, and their two daughters. This piece was edited from Cook’s 2014 essay, “Why is ‘Jaws’ My Favourite Movie?”

Tuesday, August 15, 2023

Toon: Change of scene?


Cartoon by Frank M. Hansen, a freelance Los Angeles cartoonist and member of the National Cartoonist Society. He creates cartoons, illustrations and animations about life, history and politics, in addition to original comic characters and stories for print, online and television. He’s the illustrator behind JLP’s “Transylveinya Traveler,” a humorous travel guide to and through the monster universe. His work can be seen at

Monday, August 14, 2023

Podcast: Drop your hook in this here harbor

By Walter Monster

Staff Water Monsters Writer

This week in Jack-o’-Lantern Press, come with us aboard the USS JLP for a voyage through liquid space. First-class tickets are cheap — and so is the water craft. And we’ll be diving deep, so bring your life jackets.

Up first we have an episode of the Jack-o’-Lantern Press Podcast — a Monster Mondays episode on water monsters called, fittingly, “The Water Monster.”

Secure ship for sea. Make all preparations for getting underway. And let us know when you need to come up for air — we’ll be keeping you under till Friday.