Armagideon Time

One of the happier events to come out of the pandemic lockdown period was discovering a full run of Our World on YouTube. The short-lived ABC show was a favorite of my teenage self, and its weekly wide-angle coverage of particular historical moments had a tremendous impact on my own academic development. It racked up both critical acclaim and industry awards but the real reason for its existence was to serve as a Thursday night sacrificial goat to throw up against The Cosby Show.

In a better world, ABC would’ve just ceded the time slot to NBC and played up the prestige and public service angle of a show that was cheap to produce, beloved by educators, and had a viable aftermarket as a curriculum supplement for high school history classes. In this world, they replaced it with Sledge Hammer, The Charmings, and Probe.

At least one kind soul had bothered to tape the entire series, then upload grainy VHS rips of the episodes onto YouTube. I’d long since given up hope of ever watching the show again, and was thrilled when an offhand search turned up the full playlist. The show held up pretty well, despite some takes which have since fallen to better scholarship and the flashes of Reagan Era triumphalist exceptionalism within the show’s otherwise liberal-leaning slant.

“That’s all well and good, you decrepit old gasbag,” I hear you asking, “but what does it have to do with the spooky season?”

I’ve already mentioned how these episodes were transferred from old VHS tapes. While the quality is adequate enough for a documentary program built around commentary, interviews, and archival footage, the video suffers from the usual issues you’d expect from thirty-five year old videotapes — tracking issues, visual noise, sloppy button-mash editing to remove commercials during the recording process, and the like.

For the most part, it adds to the nostalgic charm, but

During the end credits of each episode, hosts Linda Ellerbee and Ray Gandolf would rattle off various factoids about the historical period covered in that week’s show. During one particular episode, the credit scroll and narration evaporated into thirty seconds of white noise and visual distortion.

When the image finally quiet down, this greeted me…

…for a brief but soul-flensing instant before the screen faded to black.

And now that you have seen it, the curse has been transferred to you. Sweet dreams!

Recommended listing:

All right, my fellow fiends, it’s time to descend into a realm of truly tragic horror…

…otherwise known as “mid-1970s primetime television.”

“Vampire,” a second season episode of Starsky & Hutch originally aired on October 30, 1976, is part of the long if not proud tradition of tossing some modestly macabre plot into the mix during the spooky season. While the tradition has survived in some quarters into the present day, rarely does it match the levels of tacky gusto in reached during the Me Decade — which applies to a lot of popcult nonsense, to be honest.

The titular vampire was played by the late, great John Saxon, who sinks his teeth into the role with scenery-chewing aplomb.

Of course, he wasn’t really a vampire — just a dance instructor whose grief over his departed wife (portrayed by a black velvet painting of what appears to be Susan Anton) led him into the occult, and thus the need to pop in some plastic fangs, don a black cape and white satin blouse, and prey upon his female students.

Saxon’s aura of menace wass somewhat undermined by the silly slo-mo shots of him charging towards his intended victims, whose attempts to flee would get fouled up by their platform shoes and massive bell bottoms. No, I’m not making this up.

The pursuit of the delusional Dracula took Starsky and Hutch to a Satan-themed strip club — with bean bag chair seating, so you know the Devil had an active hand in running it — run by the legendary G.W. Bailey as a dirtbag diabolist…

…and featuring a somnambulist Suzanne Sommers as his prize dancer.

Eventually the heroic duo tracked the bloodsucking baddie down to an abandoned theater. Before the obligatory final fight scene could commence, however, the audience was treated an extended sequence where Saxon and/or a body double performed a vampiric ballet dance.

Ever watch something that made you feel so embarrassed for the parties involved that you felt actual physical pain as as a wince reflex wracked your entire physical and spiritual being? This was a few orders of magnitude worse than that.

Such crimes against man, nature, and Terpsichore cannot go unpunished, so it was no surprise that the frantic fight in the theater’s scaffolding ended with the wannabe vampire taking a fatal dive onto the stage below. Case closed, cue borderline tasteless joke and some pass-agg ribbing between buddies.

Oh, well, at least we got to see Huggy Bear take up a side hustle selling “vampire prevention kits” for $7.50 a pop, teasing me with visions of a spin-off I could fully get behind.

Recommended listening:

“Y’know, kids, the blood is the life…and it shall be mine!”

Recommended listening:

Plans fall apart, interests change over time, but an annual playthrough of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night has been a fixture of my October festivities since 1997.

The Japanese version of the game — along with Bushido Blade — was the reason I sprung for a region-free modded Playstation back in the day. The tantalizing screenshots on import gaming fansites and rumors that the game might not get a North American release made short work of my fiscal restraint.

I didn’t feel any buyer’s remorse after a localized version made to these shores. It merely offered another reason to play through the game, this time with a dodgy English translation and some voice acting for the ages.

I even bought the import Saturn version of the game, whose punishing load times and visual downgrades were offset by additional characters and some new regions of Dracula’s castle to explore. With the possible exception of Dig Dug, I have purchased and played SOTN more times and across more platforms than any other videogame…and I still come back to it every October, without fail.

The funny thing is that I wasn’t wasn’t much of a Castlevania fan before SOTN. I enjoyed watching my high school pal Damian screaming at his TV while playing the original NES game, but its punishing combo of high difficulty and fiddly platforming elements put it beyond the limits of my thumbskill and patience. SOTN changed things up with a side-scrolling hybrid of Metroid and Diablo — where grinding for experience levels and gear drops mattered more than precision timing. There were still oodles of monsters to slay and bosses to overcome, but the emphasis was on exploration and discovery.

The ability to grind past any combat challenge in SOTN is seen as a point against it in some quarters, but I think that assessment misses the point. Yes, it is possible to become so powerful that the final third of the game becomes a joke, but the process of getting that powerful requires a fair amount of time, effort, and lucky item drops. This isn’t Dark Souls, but rather “flaunt what you got.”

The real joy to be had comes from discovering some new secret or rare drop or equipment combo, knowing that the trip through Dracula’s domain isn’t going to hit an impassable difficulty curve. Later iterations of the formula have attempted to cap the power creep by stricter controls on inventory and level-gating, which is probably why none have captured and retained by attention the way SOTN has.

A quarter century on, and I’m still finding new-to-me facets to the game each time I play it. That’s a more remarkable design feat than some “challenging” boss fight will ever be.

Recommended listening:

One of the bigger events that happened during the hiatus was the passing of Ollie Dog last spring. He is much missed, but he had a grand life, was much loved, and left this world peacefully.

My opinion that we should maybe wait a bit before getting another canine companion was vetoed by the wife and child, which in turn led to this energetic furball joining the household:

He’s a Pomeranian/Yorkshire Terrier mix whose official name is Apito (chosen by the Kid, after a Caribbean goddess) but he has already racked up a slew of alternative and nick names…one of which is Larry.

Why?

Well, the little dude’s extreme fuzziness has led to him being called a “miniature Wookie,” “Ewok,” and — when he’s being extra rambunctious — “baby werewolf.”

This triggered memories of the time when Maura and I were watching The Wolf Man a few years back and she blurted out “Wait, the werewolf’s name is Larry?!?” So whenever Apito is acting up, we say “he’s gone full Larry.”

Personally, I think Baby Fang/Fangpuss would’ve been a better fit.

Recommended listening:

Surprised to see my unheralded return? You shouldn’t be! This the spooky season, when dead things crawl from their graves and torment the living.

What tricks and treats do I have planned for the next thirty days? You’ll just have to wait and see. Or not. The affairs of the living are of no concern to the dead.

Recommended listening:

Eh, I’ve seen groovier ghoulies.

And so we reach the end of an other Halloween Countdown that Sorta Wasn’t. Behind the scenes, I managed to cram my October with all sorts of ghoulish delights, from 1970s made-for-TV devil movies to the original PS1 Silent Hill game to a long-overdue reread of Stephen King’s Night Shift.

It was great fun, but I didn’t feel the need to rush back here and pontificate about any of it — and I suspect the former has a great deal to do with the latter. Shaking off the sense of obligation that overtook this site is still a work in progress.

Recommended listening:

Recommended listening:

I was hoping to get a bit more substantive during this countdown but, as they say, the devil is in the details.

Recommended listening:

Recommended listening:

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