Sunday, February 28, 2010

A Rockin' Good Time!

I attended my first Make-and-Take yesterday with the New Jersey-Pennsylvania group from Hauntforum. This is the definition of a good time. We're all a little weird with our love (obsession) for all things Halloween, but you'd never meet a friendlier, more giving, generous group of people. I'm excited about becoming a regular participant with this bunch. I already feel like I've got a whole new, big group of friends.

Rockin' Granny
Our project was the ScareFX Rockin' Granny wiper motor prop, a creepy looking self-contained motorized contraption that, for me, looked to be an excellent introduction to mechanical props.

You know you've got issues, though, when you're excited when your wiper motor from MonsterGuts comes.

While I initially had some trepidation about the whole thing, as the parts list was like something out of an Ikea catalog, I figure we'd all have a grand time failing together if it didn't work out. The photos left and below show what I eventually constructed. The cool thing is, it works!

Of course, building something never goes quite as planned, and there was more tweaking going on than you'd find at a meth lab (note all the washers on the control arm), but in the end -- and after both encouragement and (electrical wiring) help from the more advanced haunters there (thanks, Vlad and hpropman!) -- we got it going. Now it comes down to filling it out: attaching the PVC torso, clothing, and head. Oh, and a rocking chair!

Next month, March 13, we'll be meeting again at trishaane and Kenny's house in Neptune for an LED spotlight M&T. These two go all out to make you feel welcome in their home, and allowing 20-something Halloween fanatics loose in your house is akin to letting the patients overrun the asylum.

The food's hot, the alcohol flows, the work gets done, and the props get built. If you are nearby (it took me an hour to drive there), it's well worth the trip. I've got my order in for a variety of colors of LED bulbs, and I'll take Vlad and hpropman's word for it they'll give us all the instructions because my eyes glazed over as they talked about the ohms, resistance (and resistors), wiring, and amps.

If you're not in the New Jersey area, I'd suggest looking for one near where you live. You're going to have some skilled people show up that will share with you their know-how. I imagine the only thing they'll ask for in return is that you contribute your own level of generosity and friendship.


Friday, February 26, 2010

Hauntcast's Rad Redo

There are plenty of Halloween-related podcasts on the Internet, but most are geared to the professional haunted house industry or they're lacking in professionalism. It's the rare podcast that's able to combine a home haunt flavor with a level of skill and polish. In fact, I've found only one.

I'm a big fan of Hauntcast, the premier Halloween and haunt related podcast. That's why when they broadcast their 16th show yesterday, I was also stoked about their new kick-ass graphics and a completely redesigned website.

Moreover, each of the personalities that participate on the show -- Revenant, Johnny Thunder, Shelley, and Dr. Morbius -- all have their own logos as well. Way cool!

Finally, there's Hauntcast's G/Host, Chris Baker who in addition to overseeing the show's minions, also runs Discount Voice Overs, a site for getting audio into your haunt (amongst other things. Need a DJ? Chris Baker's your man!). He's also started a new Hauntcast blog, which I plan on following.

Aside from the extreme entertainment value the once-a-month show brings, it's surprisingly chock full of useful information too. For example, Revenant's "Theater of the Mind" segment gives haunters some intelligent things to think about when it comes to setting up their Halloween display, whether it's a static show like I put out or something more interactive with animatronics and actors. For example, his suggestion to have a Plan A, B, and C for what you'd like to achieve each year has givne me the hope that I can exceed my ambitions, but if not, all is not lost. Also, his discussions of haunt atmosphere -- an how he arrived at his insights -  you get a lot to think about. It's pretty inspiring. Look to Rev for haunt and Halloween news as well.

Johnny Thunder and his infectious laughter provides a unique insight into horror movies in his "Fright Flicks" segment, even if he and I don't always agree (Johnny, what were you thinking about with your Wolfman love?!). Most of the time he's spot on and I've come to rely a lot upon his reviews in deciding upon what movies to go and see.

Shelley, the Mistress of Mayhem, of ShellHawk's Nest, gives an eclectic view of all things Halloween in "The Charmed Pot," and her entertainment tips are, well, entertaining. She is like a center of gravity for the show, give it some grounding and preventing it from completely running away to become an excess of fratboy antics (not that that's a bad thing). It's like a voice of reason amongst the madness.

Last is Dr. Morbius, who has taken over from the Garage of Evil guys who originally were part of the show answering questions about props and prop building (Dr. Morbius has a page over on the GoE website). The "Ask the Doc" segment takes questions sent in or found on the various Halloween discussion boards like Halloween Forum and Haunt Forum. Dr. Morbius gives you the technical know-how to solve your haunt's problems and challenges.

Combine these elements over the course of more than an hour's running time, and Hauntcast covers a lot of ground but still leaves you wanting more. It's a great soundtrack to work on your Halloween props to and has me laughing all the way through.

The one problem I do have with the show is that it's turning me into an alcoholic. For some reason, when I hear the show I seem to want to crack open a cold one (or two or three or four) and drink heavily. By the time the show's over I've got a hell of a buzz going (remember, the show runs for an hour or so and I'm drinking almost a six-pack of beer, so you do the math on my level of intoxication). Fortunately, I love beer as much as I love this show, so it's all good.

Anyway, I highly recommend you check out the podcasts -- all the past shows are archived on the website. Maybe just put the beer out of reach before imbibing the show's humor.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Jonty Joint

I made my first ball-and-socket joint that blogger Jonty at Darkside Creations had developed and which I discussed a couple of weeks ago. I call it a "Jonty Joint."

I'm not completely happy with my creation, though that's no reflection on the design. It's just my own skills. In Jonty's video, his two balls are completely smooth (at least they appear that way) so it would probably allow for smoother operation. Mine are a little to bumpy for my liking, so I'll need to smooth them down a little more before joining them together next time.

Jonty recommends using balls about the size of ones you'd find in kids ball rooms. The only ones I could find like that came in a bag of 100 which I figured was a few more than I needed. So I used Wiffle balls instead, even though they're a little larger. However, they seem to be a good size to replicate a shoulder joint and if I can come across some smaller balls (maybe between golf ball size and the one's Jonty recommends) it would be good for an elbow, wrist, or knee.

Otherwise the joint works just like it's advertised. It's a quick project that gives me another dimension in posing my props.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Haunt Porn

There are so many home haunts out there, some more professional than others, but each with a unique flavor to them that I'd like to highlight some of the props, scenes, and haunts that strike me as exemplary of what I want to strive towards.

So I'll occasionally post a picture from home haunters who inspire me to do better -- or to steal their ideas!

The picture above comes from Spider Rider in Sacramento, CA.

Added thoughts: Why I like this photo so much is -- aside from the terrific craftsmanship on display in the weathered, moss-covered columns; the gargoyles that sit atop them, and the tombstones in the background (as if all that wasn't enough) -- is the sumptuous lighting that is employed to bring all of the elements into play and highlight the best features of each.

You realize from the beginning that you are walking into a different place, a spooky place. You can almost here the crickets chirping and the breeze rustling in dry branches as animals skitter in the underbrush.

This picture struck me the very first time I saw it, as I'm sure it did most people. But I think it best highlights the mood and atmosphere that I'd like to achieve in my own haunt and is why I made it the first addition to this collection of inspirational photos.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Review: The Wolfman

I'm sure I'll be chided by The Wolfman fans everywhere, but I thought this latest edition to the genre lacked teeth.

The story is well-known enough by now: Benicio Del Toro as Lawrence Talbot returns to England as an accomplished actor after having been sent away to America as a child following the horror of having witnessed his mother's tragic death. Apparently, he spent some time in an insane asylum too prior to his journey across the pond.

Upon his return, he learns of the ghastly murder of his brother, either at the hands of a madman or the claws of a beast. Seeking to learn more, Del Toro is attacked and wounded by the hell-hound thus setting up his own transformation, which was well done without the theatrics of "An American Werewolf in London." It seemed a convincing transformation and my own fingers felt stiff watching Del Toro's hand wrack into those of a wolf.

The subsequent hunt for the beast and the denouement were all rather predictable, even the plot twist, considering it wasn't much of a twist at all.

It wasn't due to a lack of an adequate set design that the movie failed for me, as Victorian England is most palpable in movie, and I almost expected to see Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes come striding through the fog in his deerstalker. But Hugo Weaving as the Scotland Yard detective Abberline was a sufficient stand in and Anthony Hopkins turned in a fine performance as Sir John Talbot, though sometimes I felt he was acting in a different movie altogether. I think my favorite performance was actually given by Art Malik who played Talbot's manservant Singh.

The movie just felt wooden and while I thought Del Toro's performance as Talbot was credible, as has been expressed in several reviews, it was so understated as to have left the character devoid of emotion after he is marked the curse.

There were predictable scares and jumps, and while many have noted the movie's gore, I really didn't think it was overdone. In fact, considering what was attacking people and the level of decay suffered by Talbot's brother at the outset, I would have expected more (maybe I was secretly hoping for more).

I wanted to like the movie, and I did, I just didn't love it. It was good, not great. My wife, though, enjoyed it more than I did, though I'd also say she wasn't wowed by the experience either. It's probably worthwhile to go see the movie, though I'm glad I was able to see it for free through my Optimum Triple Play Rewards membership. Otherwise I'd recommend waiting for it to hit your Netflix (NFLX) queue or the local Redbox kiosk and rent it for just $1.00.

It gets 3 out of 5 tombstones.


Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Home-Made Plastic

I'll be thinking about how I can use this more in the future for prop building, but I came across a video -- and a few sites that experimented with the recipe -- on how to make home-made, biodegradable plastic from common household ingredients.

The blog Shapeways did some experiments at home and while finding it a gee-whiz type of science project, was disappointed to see how the results came out when using molds. In particular, the plastic shrunk and deformed to varying degrees. 

In the comments section it was suggested that sheets of plastic could be made, allowed to dry (and shrink/deform), and then reheated and shaped as necessary.

The first thing that popped into my mind was using the plastic to craft skulls, masks, and props. It seems like it could be a great help in making a mold that could be used over and over again. Obviously the great benefit is in the relative low cost and ease of access to the ingredients. While the blogs I visited that discussed the process talked a lot about using laser etching and 3-D printers to create stuff, um, I don't have ready access to that. I imagine running this plastic through my inkjet printer won't accomplish much other than making a mess.

Still, it seems worthwhile experimenting with the process and I'll post my results in the future. For now, here's the recipe:

7 parts water
1 part vinegar
1/2 part glycerine (no, that's not the stuff you make dynamite out of)
1-1/2 parts starch

Heat in a pan for several minutes and apparently this creates a thick substance with a glue-like consistency that you can spread out to make sheets. Seems it can take up to a day (or more) to dry and harden depending on the thickness.

According to the Shapeways post, a recipe of 8 parts water, 1 part vinegar, 1 part gycerine, and 1-1/2 parts starch worked best for filling molds and was much easier to work with.

I'm not sure how effective this will ultimately be, but it certainly seems worth trying. I hope some other haunters pick this up who are more technically and scientifically advanced than I am and can improve upon the process.


Monday, February 15, 2010

Don't Worry, We'll Make More

According to the Left 4 Dead 2 blog, nearly 29 billion zombies have been shot, bludgeoned, chainsawed and killed in the two months since the game was released. That means the entire population of the planet has been zombified and killed 4.26 times!


Sunday, February 14, 2010

Review: Mutants

There's nothing like a good zombie flick to bring you closer together with your special someone the night before Valentine's Day, so my wife and I settled onto the couch to watch the French zombie film Mutants. Conveniently it comes with English subtitles.

More and more I'm finding foreign horror films to be just so much better than their American-made counterparts and Mutants did not disappoint. For three quarters or so of the movie, anyway.

We start off in a winter scene where a woman watches as her companion is attacked by zombies before she flees through the woods. She makes it to the roadway where she's met by an ambulance on its way to take a wounded soldier for help. It quickly becomes apparent the soldier is about to "turn" and he's dragged out of the back so his partner -- a woman with the manliest voice I ever heard (actually, my wife and I were debating whether the soldier was a man or woman for a good 5 minutes before the subtitles told us the answer) -- shot him dead.

In need of gas, the ambulance stops at a roadside station and the suspense begins to build. In the end, the ambulance driver, a character named Sonia Duprey (no, that's not why I liked the movie) and her husband/boyfriend Marco make it to this big-ass building in the mountains. Inside it looks something like a hospital but it could be a hotel (some of the outside shots seem to show what look like balconies, but it's got a heckuva lot of medical supplies on hand) where it's revealed Marco has been bitten.

There's a lot of good suspense as you can hear the zombies howl in the wild and the tension builds as Marco pleads to be killed while Sonia wants to save him. After locking him away for his and her own good, the movie falls apart a little.

There's another band or survivors that breaks into the hospital/hotel/refuge and some typical post-apocalyptic characters emerge: the domineering guy who or some reason doesn't think they'll be better off if they help each other to survive; the fawning girlfriend who finds a need to go down on him in the middle of it all; the "crazy" loner; etc.

I found the ending a little predictable, even if it was a little hard to follow the plot development at one point. I'm thinking something got left on the editing room floor that might have explained things a little better. Regardless, considering much of the dreck that's out there these days from American directors, I thought Mutants was a worthwhile effort. Even having to read the subtitles wasn't a distraction from watching the movie.

I'd give it 3 tombstones out of 5.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Mass Effect

I recently came across a blog called Darkside Creations where blogger Jonty creates some terrifically imaginative papier mache projects. He's also wonderfully giving by sharing a lot of the methods he uses and his projects and tutorials are particularly helpful for the frugal haunter (and artist) in all of us (make that me).

One tutorial in particular is going to help me with the fireplace surround I previously mentioned I was going to build for Halloween. Because of the large number of skulls I'm going to need for the surround, his replication method will allow me to churn out far more than I was going to be able to before.

Using aluminum foil and masking tape, Jonty is able to churn out large numbers of skulls in a short amount of time. Since he'll be adding greater detail to the skull face later, his method gives you the basic shape in a short amount of time. Part 2 can be seen here. He also recommends using a simple balloon to fill out the rest of the skull face.

I think I might be able to take this one step further though by combining Jonty's skull face replication method with Stolloween's new cardboard skull armature.

The great Stolloween posted a new method of creating his distinctive skulls that's also relatively fast and inexpensive (he says the expressive masks cost all of about $0.50 to make). His facial details are his alone and I don't recommend copying them (no matter how cool they are), but the use of simple cardboard strips to define the back of the skull does make the process of building the rest of the skull a simple matter.

Thus, using Jonty's facial replication method with Stolloween's cardboard armature structure seems like it will give me a very fast and economical (er, cheap) means of making the large number of skulls I'll need.

I'd also like to mention a youtube video Jonty posted for making a quick and easy ball-and socket joint. The beauty of this simple joint means that it just might be possible to pose skeletons in any number of positions. You'll be able to use the same prop in different scenes year after year.

There might be some issues with keeping the integrity of the joint intact if it's used outside in the elements, but I would think with proper sealants and coatings it should last just as long as the rest of the prop. Certainly it's worth trying and I'll be using it in the hanging corpses I have planned for my new side yard haunt.

That's the one thing I've found out about the haunt community is that everyone is quite willing to freely share their knowledge with others. Giving back seems like a great way to repay their efforts.


Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Going Medieval

I think I've mentioned before my dilemma with Halloween decorating: where I prefer a darker, moodier, atmospheric tableau my wife tends towards lighter, cuter designs. Where I like rot and death, she prefers quaint and kitsch.

So far I've given her the run of the inside of the house while I've been allowed to take over most of the front yard. Some of our yard props are still too lighthearted for my taste, but we have an uneasy truce that allows me to have control over most props (probably because I'm the one making them!).

This year I want to take my display to a higher plane, and I've been musing about how best to achieve the effect I'm looking for. I've previously said I was looking at various ideas, such as a Grand Guignol theme along with a medieval one. I've decided now against the former because I think that would rely too much upon blood and guts. One of the charms of the Grand Guignol theater was the level of torture and gore they brought to the stage. Since I'm looking for something creepier than just oozing blood, I've decided I will go with a macabre medieval set. For some reason, the period encompassing the rise of the Black Plague in medieval England seems appropriately atmospheric enough.

"The plague, I hear, encreases in the towne much, and exceedingly in the country everywhere." -- Samuel Pepys

Perhaps it has to do with the fact that death was literally at everyone's door. The village of Eyam in Derbyshire is perhaps best known as the "plague village" because of its willingness to seal itself off from the outside world when the plague arrived there. Of the 350 villagers that lived there prior to the Black Death's arrival, only 83 survived.

"How many noble men, how many beautiful ladies, how many light-hearted youth, who were such that Galen, Hippocrates, or Asclepius would declare them the healthiest of all humans, had breakfast in the morning with their relatives, companions, or friends, and had dinner that evening in another world with their ancestors!" -- Boccaccio

Death and ruins seem to be an appropriate feeling for Halloween, decay and decrepitude. Thus I've decided to expand my Halloween haunt to include my side yard where I'll be able to channel trick-or-treaters to venture to get their candy. So I've begun sketching out ideas for how I'd like the side yard to look.

Passing beneath an arbor, you travel along a narrow stone path that opens up into a wide patio area. An elevated, wrap-around porch is on your left while a tall picket fence runs along the right. I'm envisioning a stone arcade of ivy and moss-covered gothic arches lining the lower wall of the porch. Above will be the tattered remnants of aged banners.

Since I also want to try my hand at using some of the new papier mache methods I've discovered to build larger, human-like props I think I'll be able to incorporate one or two back here as well. The picture above shows my sketch of a plague doctor, the poor souls whose duty it was to visit the houses of the ill to see who had the plague and who did not. From what I've read, they weren't real doctors at all (the real ones had fled the cities), but merely brave individuals who were appointed the task of sealing up a house with any infected individuals inside.

The creep factor comes from their outfits. Dressed in long robes to protect their skin from exposure, they wore great beaked masks that were filled with aromatic herbs to fend off the foul smell of the dead and dying. Their eyes were protected as well with goggles and their broad-rimmed hats protected their heads from any airborne attack. One or two of them standing around the patio (or peering back over their shoulders at you while they tend to the dying) might be creepy indeed. Plague-bearing rats climbing over everything would be part of the scene.

These two sketches are the start of my ruminations as to how I'd like the haunt to develop. As more ideas arise and as the prop building develops, I'll post more thoughts here.


Monday, February 8, 2010

Home Haunt News

Something I should have noticed (and noted) a few months ago was the inclusion of one the photos of my yard haunt in the November 2009 issue of Home Haunt News.

The folks at the online magazine crafted a special edition featuring photos from haunts around the country, and they did me the honor of placing one from mine in the issue (check out the middle photo on p. 19).

Thanks guys, keep up the good work!


Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bloody February Already?

Where did the time go? Last I knew I was preparing to make some Christmas props and was planning a full-bore Halloween extravaganza. Well, I made my Christmas sleigh, but that was about it as the weather turned chilly and making props in the unheated garage lost its charm.

As for all those skulls I was going to be churning out every other day...hahaha! After all the Christmas decorating that went on, I was propped out. But it was actually good to take a break from all the mayhem and to have some time off. Now that February is here, I can moderate the enthusiasm I was gripped with after Halloween and take a more determined pace to complete the tasks I've set for myself.

I caught up with the folks at Hauntcast again and that was enough to get me excited again, and then checking in on the various Halloween blogs where the people aren't so mercurial has got me thinking again about this year's haunt. I look forward to starting some tasks again, though one thing I did find out is that if you leave a prop one partially completed, expect it to start falling apart as it sits in the corner.

One of the corpses I began in November has been sitting on my workbench waiting patiently for me to complete it. I had attached the papier mache skull to the spine and attached ribs with duct tape and that was as far as I had gotten when the embers of enthusiasm subsided. Well, checking on my workbench today, I see that the ribs have sagged or dislocated and he's pretty much a blob of bones now. I'm guessing the temperatures in the shop must have fluctuated enough that the glue of the tape stopped working and fell off. But I was happy to remember that I had actually started on one of the corpses, so I'm looking forward to tackling him again.

I probably won't be posting as regularly as I'd like just yet, but as things start to heat up again and I work my way down to the shop once more, I'll be tickling the key board with some updates and perhaps some progress shots.

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